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As Bay Area air quality regulators declared Wednesday the 18th no-burn day of the season, some Sonoma County residents are starting a new Christmas tradition: firing up realistic-looking ceramic gas-burning logs.

Gas and electric appliances are essentially the only heating options on Spare the Air days, said Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesperson Lisa Fasano.

"Natural gas stoves and natural gas logs are okay," she said. "The reason they can be used is because they don't put out the pollution that builds up."

Clean-burning gas stoves, fireplaces and inserts are becoming popular with Sonoma County homeowners, especially when poor air quality renders wood fireplaces unusable, said Eleanor Butchart, owner of On Fire, a Santa Rosa fireplace store.

"Using gas produces zero emissions, and people like that," she said. "There is no particulate that can cause health issues."

Butchart served on a committee that recommended Santa Rosa adopt an ordinance requiring new homes be fitted with heating devices approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some wood-burning fireplaces meet EPA guidelines, but on hazy winter days the strict Bay Area air district rules don't allow burning of any solid fuels, including pellets or synthetic logs.

"It is unfortunate that the air quality board has a ban against wood burning in general," she said.

Wood-burning devices at Butchart's store are displayed next to pamphlets explaining wood burning regulations. District regulators can issue $100 fines for lighting up on a no-burn day. A second offense could cost $500.

Gas stoves cost slightly more than wood-burning models. A low-end gas stove at On Fire costs $1,575 while a comparable wood stove is $1,400. But there is savings in fuel costs with gas, Butchart said. It costs about half as much to heat with gas as it does with firewood.

Jeff Held of Kenwood knows the benefits of heating with gas. He recently bought a gas fireplace insert for his daughter who lives in Santa Rosa, in part so that she could use it on no-burn days.

"The insert we got is just fantastic," said Held, who shopped Tuesday for a fireplace screen as a last minute Christmas present. "She can use it on a day like today."

The hospitality industry also is impacted by Spare the Air days. That charming bed and breakfast with the cozy fireplace? Cold and dark on a Spare the Air day.

At the Vintners Inn just north of Santa Rosa, 24 rooms come with wood-burning fireplaces, general manager Percy Brandon said. On days like today, guests in those rooms are told not to burn and are refunded the $30 difference of the cost of a room without a fireplace.

The hotel is in the process of swapping the wood-burning fireplaces for electric models, Brandon said.

"There are too many Spare the Air days," he said. "We are changing all of our fireplaces to electric. That will pretty much fix the problem."

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District includes the portion of Sonoma County from Windsor south. Air quality in the rest of the county is regulated by the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, which doesn't issue bans on indoor burning, said air pollution control officer Barbara Lee.

"We have good air quality here," she said. "We don't have the same degree of controls that the Bay Area has."

The Northern Sonoma County district offers a rebate for homeowners to replace an old wood-burning stove with an EPA-certified model. The rebate includes $1,000 for a new clean wood stove or fireplace and $1,500 for a new gas model. The program so far has allocated $25,000 for new stoves, Lee said.

"A lot of people are going to gas," she said. "It definitely is much cleaner for outdoor air, and it is also better for indoor air quality."

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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