Threat Of Wildfires Leads To Stricter Air Quality Rules

Margie Shafer
November 21, 2019 - 5:05 pm

Brian Krans/KCBS Radio

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The threat of wildfires at any time of year in the Bay Area has forced officials to impose tighter air quality restrictions that could affect many homeowners.

Spare the Air days will now trigger a wood-burning ban all year long, where before wood burning bans were only called from November through February. And fire agencies no longer have to pay fees to conduct prescribed burns.

The changes aim “to address this new climate reality and its impact on air quality with some new tools,” said Katie Rice, Marin County Supervisor and chair of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The extension of wood burning bans is necessary because wildfires now strike at any time of year. “We know that when you’ve got smoky air from a wildfire, that localized burning in a wood stove just exacerbates what’s already there at a real local level,” said Rice.

Spare the Air days are called whenever levels of ozone, a main ingredient of smog, on the ground are expected to exceed EPA health standards.

“The American Lung Association and the health community at large are so excited about this regulation because we’ve known for a long time the health effects of breathing wood smoke are very very harmful,” said Jenny Bard, director of health partnerships with the ALA. “Breathing particle pollution is extremely harmful to health. We know that it can cause heart attacks, asthma attacks and stroke, and even lead to premature death.”

The air district said there will be exemptions to the ban during PG&E's power shutoffs or any other loss of power, or when residents have no alternate sources of heat.

Violators of the wood burning ban will be encouraged to take a wood smoke awareness course or pay $100 for a first violation, with fines increasing for subsequent violations. 

And in an effort to work collaboratively to fight wildfires, fire agencies will no longer have to pay permit fees to the air district to conduct prescribed burns. The controlled burns are a common wildfire prevention tool, allowing firefighters to reduce the amount of vegetation that can turn into deadly fuel for fires.

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapenhouman has been critical of the fees for years, saying they make “no sense whatsoever.”

Fire agencies such as Cal Fire will still be required to obtain permits for the burns but fees will now be waived.

Rice says reducing wildfire risk is an important goal not only for firefighters and the community at large, but for the air district’s central mission as well. “The air quality impacts of wildfire are just tenfold, hundredfold what the impacts are of a prescribed burn. Not just in terms of quantity, but actually a wildfire burns all sorts of different stuff under different conditions.”

Residents can sign up to be notified when a Spare the Air Alert has been issued by texting the word "START" to 817-57, calling (877) 4NO-BURN, visiting www.sparetheair.org or downloading the Spare the Air smartphone app.