Air-quality leaders on Thursday approved landmark restrictions that will significantly affect people who burn wood. Rather than dwell on when they can’t burn, leaders want to emphasize a compromise focusing on when they can.
The “can’t” part is dismal for those who enjoy fireplaces and older stoves; come winter, there will be more days than not when burning is illegal.
The new rules are expected to double “no burn” days in Stanislaus County, from an average of 36 to 72, among 120 winter days from November through February. Those in Merced and San Joaquin counties would see increases from 19 and 24, respectively, to 55 and 53 “no burn” days.
Those willing to invest in new clean-burning technology, on the other hand, will have much more freedom to light up than before. In fact, they will bask in firelight glow almost every night.
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“This rule reduces smoke pollution from wood burning while still allowing it to occur,” said Bill O’Brien, a Stanislaus supervisor and member of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s governing board.
O’Brien characterized the compromise as a “carrot-stick approach; if you’re going to burn, you’ve got to do it cleanly.”
The catch is the cost.
Only devices certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can be used on most winter days. They include newer wood stoves, pellet stoves, and all gas stoves and gas heaters. They typically run from $3,000 to $5,000.
The air district has had good participation in previous rebate programs, offering $100 to people willing to convert to efficient wood stoves, $250 for pellet stoves and $500 for gas-powered devices. Now people can get $1,500 rebates for any of them, starting today.
Owners will need to register clean-burning devices online, and eventually pay $12.50 every three years to cover the district’s administrative costs. Also, people will need to hire a certified expert to inspect their stove or heater every three years to make sure it’s running right; O’Brien compared that to California’s auto smog check program.
Only one member of the air district’s governing board, a Kern County supervisor, voted against the new rule, and few people in the audience spoke against it.
Crystal Whole, a Duraflame spokeswoman, said only a fraction of the people who once regularly enjoyed fires still do so since the air district began pushing air-quality programs two decades ago. It’s obvious, she said, that other pollution sources – vehicles and businesses are commonly cited – are more to blame than fireplaces.
Mark Anaforian said the air district has attempted to “vilify the wood industry,” labeling 75 percent of burners as “dirty.” Kurt Kautz, who employs 44 people at a Lodi firewood company, said the rule could hurt poor people because wood is cheaper than electricity and natural gas. Others have questioned why the air district is going after homeowners rather than businesses.
The district’s Errol Villegas noted 500 rules addressing air quality since 1992, many aimed at businesses, which have spent $40 billion upgrading equipment, reducing their pollution output by 80 percent. Nowhere else in California, and probably the United States, do companies put up with such strict requirements, said Seyed Sadredin, the district’s executive director.
Both men said the Valley, cursed with bowl features that trap air, cannot hope to meet federal standards for particle pollution without the new fire restrictions. The vote lowers the trigger for “no burn” days from 30 micrograms per cubic meter to 20, in daily measurements – by far the strictest in California.
The new restrictions won’t apply to people who have no other heat source, or to remote places with no access to natural gas. Barbecues remain OK, but outdoor fireplaces, pits and rings would be subject to the same rules as fireplaces.
Commercial charbroilers and landscapers could become targets of future regulation, officials say.
Most speakers praised the compromise.
D.C. Snow said his ailing wife craves dry heat produced by their EPA-certified stove. “We’ve got a window. Sometimes she’d rather watch that and the flicker of fire than television,” he said.
Modesto’s Louise Johnson, who has asthma, applauded incentives for low-income people – $2,500, plus $500 for those needing gas plumbing, which combined could pay for a low-end device. “I’m positive this will do a lot of good for air quality in the Valley,” she said.
Robert Guardiola of Riverbank’s All Brands Hearth & Spa said the rule could help the wood industry. Customers save enough on power bills to pay for devices within five years, he said, although half of his inventory is gas units.
People who might have seen past restrictions as punitive could embrace clean technology because of the higher incentives, helping to mend the district’s perception among regular folk, said Steve Goldstein of Modesto’s Spa Doctor Pool-Spa & Stove Center.
A board member representing public health interests, Dr. John Capitman, said, “I understand how emotional and concerning this topic is to people.”
With 240,000 homes burning wood in the San Joaquin Valley, he calculated that the district hopes to persuade about 43,000 to convert to clean-burning appliances; Tuesday’s vote set aside $2 million for incentives, which might cover 1,400 rebates, or less.
Sadredin said the board could opt to put more money in the program. However, a lot of people are expected to simply give up burning, he said.