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Spare the Air alert issued for start of Christmas week

A weather pattern that has trapped smoke from fire places above the Bay Area has prompted a Spare the Air alert for Monday.

The alert, announced Sunday afternoon by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is the first since Dec. 5, and it prohibits the operation of wood-burning fire places and stoves and even chestnuts roasting by any open fires. Residents are allowed to burn wood for cooking meals, or if it serves as their only source of heat.

“On Monday, smoke from residential wood burning is expected to cause unhealthy air throughout the Bay Area,” Air District Executive Officer Jack Broadbent said in a news release. “During this holiday season, when respiratory health is a priority for us all, it is critical that everyone does their part to improve air quality and protect public health by not burning wood.”

Conditions in the Bay Area are ripe for such an alert, with cold overnight temperatures and light winds allowing smoke to settle beneath a layer of warmer air, which acts like a lid keeping pollutants closer to ground level. Offshore winds, too, may allow air pollution from the Central Valley to drift into the Bay Area, further contributing to poor air quality, according to district officials.

The alert is expected to end by Tuesday, when air quality rebounds to “moderate” levels.

Monday’s Spare the Air Alert brings the season’s total to two, matching the total number of alerts issued last winter season, which stretches from November to February. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District averages about 15 alerts per season, said district spokeswoman Erin DeMerritt.

The air district uses a dense air-monitoring network to review particulate matter concentrations, coupling those readings with weather pattern analysis to determine whether air quality will dip below federal guidelines, sparking a Spare the Air alert.

Those alerts always cover each of the air district’s nine counties, including Sonoma County.

“(It’s because) air is kind of always on the move – if it’s unhealthy in one area, it’s likely we’ll have unhealthy air quality for other counties,” DeMerritt said.

A series of massive wildfires across Northern California this past fire season led to an unprecedented stretch of unhealthy air during which the region suffered through 30-straight days of Spare the Air alerts. And the wildfire season was only officially called to an end by local fire officials just last week.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville said the late-running fire season led to a bottleneck for pile burning, but he added most agriculture operations and residents are caught up by now, and the crush of prescribed burns likely wasn’t a driving factor in Monday’s Spare the Air alert.

DeMerritt, with the air quality district, said the main culprit, apart from whether patterns, is residential wood burning, primarily from the 1.4 million fireplaces in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s alert comes with prohibitions on the type of wood burning that could further choke the atmosphere with carcinogenic gas and particulate matter, leveling penalties for violations as high as $500 for repeat offenders.

For more information, visit www.sparetheair.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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