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Cold, stagnant air causing Bay Area pollution alerts

Unless Mother Nature changes her pattern, the Bay Area — including most of Sonoma County — is headed for a record number of high-pollution days when home wood fires are banned.

The ceaseless dry cold weather has led to atmospheric conditions that have trapped pollutants close to the ground, resulting thus far in 10 so-called Spare the Air bans. That's more than the past two winter seasons and about as many alerts as there were during the first season three years ago when the crackdown started.

And the current pollution-alert season is only half over.

"We're on pace to possibly have the most winter Spare the Air alerts since the wood-burning rule has been in effect," said Aaron Richardson, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which administers the rule.

Complaints of violations are rolling in.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 400 people in the nine-county Bay Area tipped off air district officials about neighbors who were illegally burning wood in fireplaces.

That's a big share of the complaints usually filed during the cold-weather season, which runs from Nov. 1 through the end of February. There were 1,453 complaints in 2008-2009 season, 2,355 in 2009-2010 season and 1,373 complaints a year ago.

District officials said Wednesday they do not yet know how many of the 400 complaints came from Sonoma County residents, but if history is a guide, many came from the North Coast.

When district officials catch someone violating the rule, a warning letter is issued. A second instance will result in a notice of violation and a $400 fine.

A little less than 10 percent of all Spare the Air complaints have historically come from Sonoma County. But the county's share of warning letters is far greater.


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