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Chestnuts roasting on an open fire are a celebrated slice of Americana, but those cheerful blazes are bound for extinction under proposed Bay Area air quality regulations that would apply to most of Sonoma County’s 185,660 households.

Aimed at reducing the health threat from pollutants produced by burning wood in fireplaces and stoves, the rules would cost property owners hundreds to thousands of dollars to install alternatives — including federally certified wood-burning devices, gas-fueled or electric options — or to remove or wall off fireplaces.

For homeowners, however, the requirements would not apply until their property is sold or transferred.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District says that a complete turnover — eliminating about 1.4 million fireplaces and noncertified wood-burning devices — would occur in about 30 years, based on the assumption that 3 percent of Bay Area homes are sold each year.

The district’s proposals have rekindled a debate over wood smoke, with health advocates supporting cutbacks and both the wood stove industry and real estate interests challenging specific regulations.

The air district began issuing winter pollution alerts more than 15 years ago through voluntary burn bans on days when air quality was expected to be poor, said Ralph Borrmann, a district spokesman. The program did not effectively curb particulate levels, leading to the adoption in 2008 of more extensive rules, including mandatory winter burn bans known as Spare the Air alerts, which have cut particulate pollution by 30 percent, Borrmann said.

But wood smoke remains “a significant health issue in the Bay Area,” Jack Broadbent, executive officer of the air district, said in a press release. The proposed rule amendments are intended to “ensure that public health is protected” and that the Bay Area meets state and federal air quality standards, he said.

Wood smoke is the leading cause of wintertime air pollution, contributing 38 percent of fine particular matter, and about 1 million Bay Area residents have respiratory ailments putting them at risk from exposure to particulate pollution, the air district said.

The evidence that wood smoke is harmful is “irrefutable,” said Jenny Bard, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of California. Wood smoke particles, so small they can enter the lung and bloodstream, increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks and respiratory distress, she said.

Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable, Bard said.

The Lung Association is concerned about exposure to wood smoke by people “who can’t get away from their neighbors’ emissions,” she said, noting that some Bay Area residents relocate to hotels when smoke builds up.

Eric Miller, who’s been selling wood stoves in Santa Rosa for 29 years, said that he previously felt the Bay Area air quality regulators pushed rules “too far, too fast,” but he supports the latest proposal.

“Now I’m on board,” said Miller, owner of the local Warming Trends store, acknowledging the proposed regulations would boost his business.

Environmental Protection Agency-approved wood stoves cost at least $1,000 and fireplace inserts $1,600, he said. Gas-burning stoves are about $1,600 and inserts $2,000.

The cheapest alternative to a noncertified device is an electric fireplace insert, which costs about $450 but is a “decorative appliance” that yields little heat, said Ronn Christy, the store manager.

There’s a huge difference, according to the Millers, between noncertified wood stoves, fireplace inserts and fireplaces that emit 70 to 90 grams of particulates per hour and the current EPA standard of less than 8 grams per hour. The standard is scheduled to be reduced to 4.5 grams per hour, effective next year.

Some wood-burning appliances produce less than 1 gram per hour and generate more heat, as well, “because you’re getting more complete combustion,” Eric Miller said. Most dealers sell only EPA-certified devices, and many of them already meet next year’s standard.

The proposed regulations would require:

Installation of EPA-certified, gas-fueled or electric devices or decommissioning of uncertified devices prior to the sale or transfer of property.

A source of heat that does not burn solid fuel in all commercial and residential rental properties, with EPA-certified wood-burning, gas-fueled or electric devices also allowed.

Only gas-fueled or electric devices in all new construction, with no wood-burning devices.

EPA certification of any wood-burning device that is the only source of heat in a home and may be used during a mandatory burn ban. These devices must be registered with the air board.

The proposed regulations also allow the district to call a ban on wood burning when an unhealthy level of pollution is expected within three days. Current rules allow bans to be called the day before pollution reaches that level, and by the time a burn ban is announced “it is too late — an unhealthy level still results,” Borrmann said.

When cold weather and stagnant air are likely within three days, “we want to stop the burning in advance and avert unhealthy levels,” he said.

Winter air alerts are called from Nov. 1 through the end of February. Last winter, the district called 23 alerts, and in 2013-14 it called 30, equal to the number in 2006-07.

The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, a national trade group for the hearth products industry, takes exception to some of the proposed rules, spokesman John Crouch said.

Requiring people who depend on wood as their sole source of heat to obtain EPA-certified devices within a year seems “fairly dramatic,” he said. Those are “generally not the people who can whip out their VISA” and buy a new wood stove, he said.

EPA-certified wood-burning devices should be allowed in new dwellings, especially in the North Bay where natural gas service is limited, Crouch said.

The North Bay Association of Realtors opposes the proposal to make home sales trigger the replacement or decommissioning of noncertified wood-burning devices, calling it “an encumbrance to buyers and sellers” at a time when money is tight, said Stephen Liebling, chairman of the group’s local government relations committee.

Liebling, a Sebastopol real estate agent, said he would prefer to see that requirement apply to all homeowners at a future “date certain,” possibly in 2018.

He also disputed the prohibitions against fireplaces, contending that most people use them sparingly for ambiance, rather than heat, because most of the heat goes up the chimney. The proposed rules also give no consideration to fireplaces built into historic homes, Liebling said.

The air district is holding nine public workshops to review the proposed new rules in each of the counties it covers. The Sonoma County workshop will be from 6 to 8 p.m. April 16 in the Santa Rosa City Council chambers, at 100 Santa Rosa Ave.

The Bay Area air district covers Sonoma County up to and including most of Windsor, as well as Graton and Sebastopol in the west county, while the rest of the county to the north and west is in the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, which has fewer restrictions on burning wood.

There are no Spare the Air burn bans in the north county district and residents may continue using their existing heat sources, including noncertified wood-burning devices, said Alex Saschin, the district’s air quality engineer. All new or replacement devices must be certified, he said.

Nonetheless, Eric Miller, the stove retailer, said that many customers, including those who live outside the Bay Area district, are under the impression they can no longer burn wood for heat whenever they want.

As a result, about seven out of 10 heating devices he sells are fueled by natural or propane gas and the rest are wood-fired, he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ronn Christy’s name.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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