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Fireplace police on patrol; smoke can draw fine
11-19) 16:21 PST SAN FRANCISCO --
The fireplace police descended on the Bay Area on Wednesday.
For the first time ever, residential fires are illegal under a new law, passed in July, that bans home burning on winter season Spare the Air days.
The first such ban took effect at noon. Seventy inspectors from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District planned to spend the day and evening patrolling residential neighborhoods, looking for telltale chimney wisps.
Violators will get warnings by mail. Repeat offenders face fines of as much as $2,000.
The fireplace police say they are determined to keep law and order in the living room.
"We're serious," said district spokeswoman Kristine Roselius. "This is a major health threat. The weather conditions are such that smoke is trapped closer to the ground and anyone with respiratory problems will have a hard time breathing."
With 1.4 million fireplaces in the Bay Area, Roselius said the district is hoping for voluntary compliance. It notes that wood burning produces about one-third of the particulate pollution on a typical winter night.
The district predicts as many as 20 Spare the Air days during the winter season, which air quality officials define as Nov. 1 through Feb. 28. That means it could be illegal to fire up the fireplace as often as one day in every six.
Similar bans have been in place in the San Joaquin Valley and in the Pacific Northwest for several years.
After the initial warning, repeat violators will face fines, some as high as four figures. In other no-burn districts, offenders have been permitted to do penance by attending "smoke school," similar to traffic school. But the Bay Area is a no-school zone.
The air quality district declared its Spare the Air Day because of what it called moderate levels of pollution all around the Bay Area. Moderate pollution is expected to remain today in the East Bay, the South Bay and the Santa Clara Valley regions, with good air quality in the North Bay and coastal regions. The district will decide by noon whether to extend the wood-burning ban.
The fireplace industry was seeing red about the prospect of more smoke-free days and nights.
"This is obviously something we're very concerned about," said Chris Caron, vice president of Duraflame, the Stockton-based purveyor of sawdust fireplace logs.
He said he hoped the new ban would not affect the fire log business and that Bay Area residents would burn even more logs on non-Spare the Air days.
"After (the district) gets through trying to scare everyone to death, we expect they will realize that people still want to burn in their fireplaces," Caron said.
He also said it was unfair to lump cleaner-burning sawdust-based logs with ordinary wood. And he said he was hoping for lots of cold, rainy, windy and miserable weather this winter.
"Bad weather is good for us," he said. "And good for air quality."
Rich Ventura, proprietor of Rich's Firewood of San Carlos, called the ban "a little excessive." Ventura sells oak fireplace wood for $400 a cord, a quantity of stacked wood that measures 4 by 4 by 8 feet.
"They should try education first - that would be a better way to go," he said. "If you build a fire properly, and get it really hot in a wood stove, there's very little smoke."
Tim Regan of San Francisco said he had already gotten his education and wouldn't be spending Wednesday night burning any of the firewood he was buying at the Safeway on Market Street for $18.
"The environment has to trump comfort," Regan said. "I'm sentimental about these things. A fireplace is so romantic, the curl of the smoke rising up - it's like Norman Rockwell. But I'm willing to make a concession to the planet's health and survival."
Receive air alerts
For more information on wintertime Spare the Air Days, check the air quality district's Web site, www.baaqmd.gov, or call (877) 466-2876. Residents may also sign up to receive automatic notification of no-burn days, by e-mail or recorded telephone messages.
Welcome to the Golden State, they have found a way into your living rooms.
Don't you just feel all warm and fuzzy now?