Bay Area pollution agency wants to ban open fireplaces

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The term “home and hearth” evokes in many a vision of rosy-cheeked children snuggling with their families by a crackling fire, but proposed air pollution regulations may soon banish traditional open-air fireplaces from Bay Area households.

Air pollution regulators want to require all Bay Area property owners — upon selling or transferring their buildings or homes — to install federally certified fireplace inserts or wood-burning stoves that filter out fine particles both indoors and out, from the chimney. Otherwise, property owners would have to render the fireplaces inoperable when their buildings change hands by removing the fireplace, bricking it up or walling it off.

The agency proposing the rule, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is holding public workshops across the region to discuss the proposed restrictions on wood burning. The idea is to help the roughly 1 million Bay Area residents who have respiratory illnesses, said Kristine Roselius, the spokeswoman for the management district, which is responsible for protecting air quality in the nine-county Bay Area.
The proposed rules could end up costing property owners hundreds or even thousands of dollars. District officials reckon, however, that it is a small price to pay for air quality improvements.
“Traditional fireplaces burn very inefficiently, so you get more smoke in and out of the house,” Roselius said. “With traditional fireplaces, between 80 and 90 percent of the heat goes up the chimney.”
Roselius said inserts and stoves certified by the Environmental Protection Agency filter the smoke, burn more efficiently and can reduce pollution as much as 70 percent. Of the 1.4 million fireplaces in the Bay Area, Roselius said, only a very small portion have EPA-certified inserts. The EPA began certifying inserts and stoves in 1988.

“If these proposed amendments pass, then anyone who sells a home will have to upgrade to gas, electric or an EPA-certified wood burning stove or insert,” she said. “Landlords who own commercial or residential buildings that they rent out would be required to provide an alternative form of heat that does not burn wood and would have to upgrade all wood-burning devices.”

Reining in fireplace use is especially important these days, officials say, because of the unusual number of calm, windless winter days and nights in the Bay Area over the past few years.
“The number of Spare the Air alerts have gone up in the past couple of years because of the drought and the lack of storms,” Roselius said. “There are still many pockets in the Bay Area that are being impacted by wood smoke, and that is what we are trying to address with these amendments.”

Spare the Air alerts, which prohibit wood burning when there are unhealthful levels of pollutants in the air, were called 23 times between Nov. 1, 2014, and Feb. 28 of this year. Thirty alerts were called a year ago, tying the record set in the winter of 2006-07.

The proposed amendments would also allow the air district to:

Ban wood smoke — defined as particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in size or smaller — up to three days before the day unhealthy levels are expected. It means burning restrictions could be implemented each day before the targeted Spare the Air date even if smoke is not expected to exceed unhealthy levels on those days.

Limit exemptions during Spare the Air days only to homeowners who upgrade to EPA-certified stoves or inserts and register the devices with the air district. Currently, anyone whose only source of heat is a wood-burning stove is exempt from the rules. Homeowners would also have to fix broken furnaces within 30 days to avoid lengthy use of wood-burning devices.

“We’re having a number of issues in the San Geronimo Valley of West Marin and a number of other inland valleys in the Bay Area where there are a lot of people with exemptions,” Roselius said. “Because it is a valley, the smoke really settles in there and we get really unhealthy air.”

No decision has been made about the removal of open-air fireplaces deemed historic or inside historic structures, she said. Criteria would first have to be developed for deciding what constitutes a historic or legacy fireplace, she said. Either way, most fireplaces and stoves would not have to be replaced until the homes are put up for sale. The rules for rental units would be more strict. All wood-burning heating systems in rentals would have to be upgraded by Nov. 1, 2016, according to the draft regulations.

The air district first began regulating indoor wood burning in 2008 after studies showed that one-third of the fine particle pollution, or soot, during the winter comes from chimney smoke. Studies have shown that people who inhale wood smoke increase their risk of asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, birth defects and premature death, according to the district.

The proposed restrictions may be a godsend for asthma sufferers, but they are bound to infuriate fire-loving homeowners who claim limits on the use, age or brand of their fireplaces are Orwellian intrusions into their private lives.

The rules would undoubtedly speed the demise of many a grand old fireplace, including the 86-year-old brick number that decorates Grier Mathews’ Corte Madera home. The fireplace looks nice, Mathews said, but it really isn’t functional on account of all the smoke.

“We stopped using it because you can really smell it and the smoke travels up to our second floor and bothers my eyes,” said Mathews, who lives with her husband, Tom, three children, two dogs and a cat. “It’s not a great fireplace and we have central heating.”
Roselius acknowledged other homeowners might not be as open as Mathews to giving their home’s hearth the heave-ho.

“We do expect a lively debate at our public workshops, but on both sides,” Roselius said. “We have had a number of people at our board meetings saying we are not doing enough. We also have a number of people calling and complaining about having to change out their wood stoves and fireplaces. That’s what these workshops are for.”

The 22-member air district board, which is made up of elected officials in each of the nine Bay Area counties, is expected to make a decision sometime in the fall.

The EPA has a list of certified wood-burning stoves and inserts at www.epa.gov/burnwise/index.html.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com

Public comment

The public may attend a public workshop or comment about the Bay Area Air Quality Management District rules using the hotline at (415) 749-4989.

San Mateo County: April 6, 6 to 8 p.m., Redwood City Public Library Downtown Branch, 2nd Floor Community Room, 1044 Middlefield Road, Redwood City.

Napa County: April 7, 6 to 8 p.m., Napa County Main Library, Community Meeting Room, 580 Coombs St., Napa.

Alameda County: April 9, 6 to 8 p.m., Livermore City Hall, City Council Chambers, 1052 South Livermore Ave., Livermore.

Marin County: April 13, 6 to 8 p.m., San Rafael City Hall, City Council Chambers, 1400 5th Ave., San Rafael.

Sonoma County: April 16, 6 to 8 p.m., Santa Rosa City Hall, City Council Chambers, 100 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa.

Contra Costa County: April 20, 6 to 8 p.m., Walnut Creek City Hall, City Council Chambers, 1666 N. Main St., Walnut Creek.

Solano County: April 22, 6 to 8 p.m., City of Suisun, City Council Chambers, 701 Civic Center Blvd., Suisun City.

San Francisco County: April 24, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Bay Area Air Quality Management District Offices, 7th Floor Boardroom, 939 Ellis St., San Francisco.

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