WatchSonoma Watch

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.

Last year, almost half of the 59 warning letters involved Sonoma County residents. During the 2009-2010 season, 77 of the 310 warning letters came from local residents — more than any of county in the Bay Area.

Air district officials said there’s a lot of wood burning in Sonoma County and that the large number of warning letters could be the result of confusion about air district boundaries. Northern Sonoma County, which is not included in the Bay Area air district’s boundaries, does not have a similar wood burning rule, she said.

The region of Sonoma County that falls within Bay Area district runs as far north as Windsor and includes Sebastopol and its environs to the west.

Richardson said this is the driest December since 1989, and that without wind or stormy weather to clear the air, levels of small-particle pollution can quickly reach unhealthy levels.

It is anticipated that each winter season will have 15-to-20 Spare the Air alerts, “and we’re well on our way to that number this year,” Richardson said.

He said that wood smoke complaints are logged by the district enforcement staff, and that an inspector is sent to investigate whenever possible.

Spare the Air alerts may have put a damper on wood fires over the Christmas weekend, but officials said that the New Year’s weekend is “looking good.”

“Right now, Saturday isn’t looking too bad and Sunday looks like it will be moderate all across the Bay Area,” said Jones, the air district spokeswoman.

“Hopefully we’ll have a rainy January and rainy February,” she said.

27 Responses to “Cold, stagnant air causing Bay Area pollution alerts”

  1. Greg Karraker says:

    Reality Check:

    Here’s a simple test. Walk outside. Look up. Breathe. The air that I see looks clean, smells fresh.

    Your point about downstream pollution sounds good, but it’s specious, because adding minor amounts of particulate to a huge clean mass does not noticeably damage said mass.

  2. Reality Check says:


    While I would prefer more of these regulations were locally based, in the case of Sonoma County the air is not clean as any review of particulate matter for recent days will reveal. And given the county’s stiff regulations on fireplace installations, it’s a fair guess that if BAAQMD hadn’t restricted wood burning, the county would have.

    Even if the air above your home is pristine, chimney smoke has been known to travel. Would you permit upstream pollution because, at that point, the river is clean?

    Comparing wood burning restrictions on days with stagnant air to the Soviet Union’s command and control economy is a stretch too far for me.

  3. Greg Karraker says:

    @RC and LBR:

    Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” So are microclimates. The condition of the air is San Jose in 1972 has no bearing on the quality of the air above my head in Penngrove in 2012.

    If air quality is a local problem, its control should be entrusted to locally elected, underline elected, governing bodies. Instead, it is left to an unelected group of climate change moonies who impose their decisions on the entire Bay Area, using data that has, among other things, overestimated particulate matter from diesel emissions by 340%.

    That is why I call it junk science. Worse that that, I call it Central Control Lite, an anemic but annoying version of the Soviet belief that Moscow bureaucrats knew more about local climate conditions than the people who actually lived in those localities. After seven decades of misery, we all know how that fallacy ended.

  4. Reality Check says:


    Fewer laws doesn’t mean no laws. Libertarians usually make the case that the environment would be best protected if viewed through the lens of property rights. As in, I have no rights to damage your property by polluting it.

    This board seems to be populated with a few people who think they have the right to do whatever they please regardless of the harm it causes others. That’s not libertarianism.

  5. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – “Actually, I’m a bit of a libertarian and think we all have a property rights interest in clean air.”
    Don’t Libertarians believe in fewer laws? Seems that the environment is one of those areas where Libertarian-ism fails…

  6. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @Greg – how old are you? San Jose used to have horrible air quality. It used to be illegal to swim in Richardson Bay because of the pollution. Cities used the bay to dump their garbage and sewage. Developers/cities were on track to fill in the whole bay with tract housing, leaving only a couple of rivers. We’ve made huge progress towards restoring the Bay environment using that ‘junk’ science.

  7. Reality Check says:


    :) Actually, I’m a bit of a libertarian and think we all have a property rights interest in clean air.

    Many years ago I stood outside my parent’s home in San Jose after Thanksgiving dinner. The air was foul, really foul, and the reason not in doubt. Practically every chimney had smoke coming from it. Were they all trying to heat their homes? Nope. It was all about indoor atmosphere.

    Even birds know enough not to soil their nests. Some right wingers, apparently, aren’t that smart. -g-

  8. Just Me says:

    I don’t think the EPA is even a legal and legitimate agency. Time to get rid of that waste…stop funding it!

  9. Greg Karraker says:

    Steve —

    The rule might be as you say, but the reality is that there should be no rule. How did we become such sheep that we could let nanny state biddlies like the fools in BAAQMD have any role in managing our personal freedom, especially when the rationalization for their control is based on junk science?

  10. Lets be Reasonable says:

    @RC – how does it feel to be a liberal!?

  11. Steve Klausner says:

    The rule is you can burn wood for heat if you do not have piped natural gas.

  12. The Hammer says:

    Unless there has been a change that I missed you can freely burn wood in you home if it is the only source of heat that you have. They don’t seem to want to tell you this. I called, several years ago, and was told the above.

  13. Frank says:

    Mary Nichols Warmer-in-Chief of the California Air Resources Board
    did she get Fired?
    The California Air Resources Board has beyond screwed-up their diesel regulations. Based upon “grossly miscalculated pollution levels” of only 340% over reality, which was used to create onerous regulations. Yes, you read right, 340%. Was this stupidity? Gross negligence? Gross incompetence?


  14. Ray M. says:

    Can’t wait for my ticket from the chimney police. It will be fun confronting my “CARB acuser” and the a-hole that snitched on me, in an open court.

  15. Mr. Obvious says:

    The BAAQMCD budget for this year is 131.7 MILLION. Can anyone think of something the BAAQMCD did worth $131,745,000?

    One way or another, you paid for it. Did you get anything you liked enough to pay that much for it? Can you think of anything you would have rather spent $131.7M on rather than Holiday Chimney Patrol?

    Do we need these clowns?

  16. Skippy says:

    Cooperating with the police to reduce crime is very different from cooperating with a gigantic, crushing fleet of appointed bureaucracies.
    Big Govt, not firewood, is choking the life from California.
    Businesses and citizens cannot breathe due to the massive weight of Big Govt pressing down from all sides.
    Today, you rat out your neighbor ‘cuz his chestnuts are roasting on an open fire. Yuletide by the fireside, and joyful memories there…and then you get a ticket.
    Next week, a new law with a new toll-free ratline to fine you for;
    a car that’s not fuel-efficient enough,
    a lawn that refuses to die,
    a kid without the required safety helmet,
    a cute little 12 year-old not in a carseat,
    a Christian symbol visible from the street,
    a non-approved US flag fluttering in the breeze,
    a Republican campaign sign,
    the wrong breed of dog,
    a BBQ,
    a cigarette,
    or any vestige of freedom whatsoever.
    The true 1% is Big Govt, and it has successfully Occupied our lives.
    It must be shrunken to the point that it can be drowned in the bathtub.
    It’s either them or us.

  17. Bradley Miller says:

    People still think it can never happen here. But many of us see the warning signs all around us. Governmental control over our lives is increasing rapidly. And many of the new regulations are coming from boards and commissions made up of appointed people. If we don’t like the new rules, there’s no way to get rid of these appointed people.

    Under Obama a new order is being ushered in. Let’s not let Obama finish the job.

  18. Social Dis-Ease says:

    To Reality Check:
    How’s that for a reality check?

    It is time for us to engage in our own ‘reality check’ let go of our unfounded illusions of trust, and the notion that we as Americans enjoy some brand of immunity.

    Identify/recognize what’s really going on, and manifest OUR NEW WORLD ORDER.

    Happy New Year?

  19. This Has to Stop says:

    @ Reality Check

    It wasn’t concentration camps that got Germans in trouble in Nazi Germany, it was things like not making the Nazi salute, speaking against Hitler, wondering if Germany was lossing the war. These things got many people executed.

    The government in Nazi Germany had many informers, including children who informed on their parents.

    It isn’t a far step from what happened then to what the Air Management Board is asking and expecting citizens to do now.

    The government needs to use warrants and lawful tools to investigate, not use neighbors to turn in other neighbors. It is a slippery slope. Time for you liberals to wake up.

  20. Rotten Fish says:

    Ah… the ugly and smelly head of progressive liberalism.

    I think we should turn the supervisors in for smelly and dangerous hair gel.

  21. Social Dis-Ease says:

    I think the reference to Nazi Germany is very applicable to our current state of affairs.
    From Hegel to Goebbles.
    From the imposed division/polarization, to the media complicit in a never ending onslaught of indoctrination, propaganda and lies.
    This story is Agenda 21 propaganda.
    As are the stories this week just itching to indoctrinate us to a drought condition.

    9-11 and it’s subsequent’terrorist’
    boogieman fears,’global warming’ all of it.

    The reason our skies look the way they do right now is because they are spraying us like cockroaches before dawn and throughout the day.

    There are measures targeting rural people that live ‘off the grid’, people that wish to warm their home independent of the PG&E ‘energy machine’.

    They wouldn’t even stop spraying us on Christmas Day.

  22. NOTUTOO says:

    The BAAQMD was initially set up to monitor and restrict INDUSTRIAL air pollution. But since most industry air pollution has been addressed by the EPA and the fact that most industries have powerful lobbyists they’ve decided to pursue their bureaucracy on the homeowner.It’s ridiculous that those of us in the North Bay are under the same burning restrictions as those living in San Francisco or Oakland. You can have HUGE agriculture waste burns on one side of the district line but on the other you can’t have a fire in your own fireplace…

  23. Reality Check says:

    Can anyone be more confused than to compare U.S. citizens who notify officials when laws are broken to Nazi informers? I don’t think so. Are the two previous posters suggesting some sort of moral equivalence between regulations to keep our air clean and concentration camps and gas chambers? It sounds like it.

    America has many problems. But it will have many more if the idea spreads that cooperating with our police is somehow Nazi-like.

  24. Greg Karraker says:

    This is the story of Dorky, The Christmas Fink. All over the Bay Area, Dorky showed up 400 times on Christmas Day, and dropped a bright shiny dime on his neighbors, who thought it was a Christmassy idea to have a warm fire in the privacy of their own fireplaces. Keep it up, Dorky, it wouldn’t be the Bay Area without you.

  25. John Lennon says:

    In Obama’s America, there is no middle class. Just lower class, with hidden taxes of increased , food , energy, health care, water, gas.

    In Obama’s America we are all second class citizens

  26. Jim says:

    Article says….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.

    Those who don’t remember history, or fail to learn it, are doomed to repeat it. You know, the Nazis encouraged people to rat out their neighbors, leading to the round-up of millions of people. So BAAQMD encourages people to rat out their neighbors.

    I didn’t vote for BAAQMD. I didn’t vote for CARB. Yet, these groups have massive power to control the way I heat my home and drive my car?? CARB has been implementing massively restrictive policies that forced hundreds of businesses to close. Their “science” is 100% junk. Do some research and you’ll see that CARB used the “scientific” studies by a complete FRAUD. Hein Tran, a “PhD”, was the “authority” used to enforce incredibly restrictive emissions standards. Funny, Mary Nichols (the leader of CARB), when confronted with Tran’s FAKE CREDENTIALS dodged the question but continued to use Tran’s “science”.

    Now, BAAQMD is forcing us to use very expensive natural gas or electricity generated via COAL FIRED POWER PLANTS to heat our houses. This seems like a tax to me. The government forcing citizens to pay extra for something they shouldn’t. Hmmm, how much more control are we willing to give the government???? Especially a completely incompetent, lying, joke of a government like we have in Sonoma County and CA.

  27. This Has to Stop says:

    Isn’t it great the government has turned so many of its citizens into informers much as they had in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Bay Area Air Quality Management Board would have been very much at home in those old regimes.

    In point of fact our air in the Bay Area has not been this clean for years. It is too bad the Board doesn’t regulate a significant contributor to bad air. The local politicians who continue to spout off hot, bad air.