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.