WatchSonoma Watch

Sonoma County leads in ‘spare the air’ complaints


Sonoma County apparently is the biggest wood-burning air polluter in the Bay Area during no-burn days, and this year the regional air quality police is cracking down more than ever.

Last year, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District received 409 wood-burning complaints from Sonoma County neighborhoods. Inspection patrols, many stemming from such complaints, resulted in 110 wood-burning violations, the most of any county in the nine-county district, officials said.

Patrick Oster of Buck Pools and Spas in Santa Rosa is reflected in the glass front of a gas fireplace, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)


Across the Bay Area district, there were 3,777 complaints and 346 violations, with most violators receiving a warning letter. But this winter, the district is no longer issuing warnings. Instead, first-time violators will be given the option of paying a $100 fine or taking a smoke awareness course online or by mail.

The district, which covers most of Sonoma County, except for north of Windsor and west of Sebastopol, issued a Spare the Air alert for today, the fourth consecutive wood-burning ban and the seventh since the Spare the Air season started Nov. 1.

The season, which lasts until Feb. 28, is an effort to reduce air pollution during winter months, when the skies over southern Sonoma County can become unhealthy. Of the nine counties in the Bay Area air district, the skies over Sonoma County are among the most heavily polluted during winter.

But the district’s heavy hand has some fireplace and wood-burning stove vendors crying foul because their modern, EPA-certified products are extremely efficient and clean.

“I understand the restrictions on wood burning, but the industry is very clean now,” said Pete Orrfelt, store manager of Malm Fireplace Center in Santa Rosa. “A modern wood stove emits an average of up to about 3.5 grams of particulate matter per hour. The maximum allowable by the EPA is 8.5 grams per hour.”

Orrfelt said the district and the media have “villainized” wood burning and made no distinction between old and new technologies.

While newer stoves and fireplaces do burn more efficiently, many of the Bay Area’s 1.4 million fireplaces and wood stoves are older, less-efficient models, said Aaron Richardson, a spokesman for the air quality agency.

“Based on our emissions analysis, wood burning is responsible for 30 percent of the fine particle pollution in the wintertime in the Bay Area,” Richardson said.

Spare the Air alerts often are called during such weather conditions as the current high-pressure system sitting over much of the Bay Area, which creates a temperature inversion that forms an atmospheric layer trapping pollutants.

Richardson said the district has about 70 inspectors, though not all are assigned to “wood burning patrol.” They review complaints made by the public and zero in on areas that receive a lot of complaints.

During the next Spare the Air alert, inspectors will go into these areas and look for violations. The violations must be observed and documented first hand before inspectors issue a ticket, Richardson said.

“In many cases they’ll take a photograph,” he said. “They’re not standing up on a hill looking down.”

Sebastopol, Petaluma and parts of Santa Rosa receive the most complaints in Sonoma County, Richardson said. Exact numbers were not available for these areas Friday.

Air quality agencies have split the county into two districts, with two different sets of rules.

For residents in northern Sonoma County, who live within in the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, there are no Spare the Air bans prohibiting the use of wood burning stoves and fireplaces.

That district, which includes all of the Sonoma Coast, most of the Russian River Valley and everything north of Windsor, is a larger region with a smaller population and, consequently, less pollution, said Barbara Lee, the district’s air pollution control officer.

The northern Sonoma County district has issued a no-burn alert for outdoor burning today, but indoor heating using solid fuel is allowed, Lee said.

“In the northern part of the county, the air quality meets all of the health-based standards set by the federal and state governments,” she said.

Spare the Air-type alerts are also foreign to Lake County, where air quality also meets state and federal standards, said Sarah Nave, air quality engineer for the Lake County Air Quality Management District.

To date, the Bay Area air district has called Spare the Air alerts this season on Jan. 1, 2 and 8, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. With the program now several years old, the days of warning letters have passed.

“The program has been around for four years and we want people to know about the hazards of wood smoke,” said Richardson, the district spokesman.

Jim Lerum, owner of Beaver Enterprises Chimney Services in Sebastopol, said he has “immense compassion” for those who are adversely affected by air pollution. But he said modern wood-burning technology should be exempt from no-burn days.

“My stoves burn only 1.1 grams per hour,” he said. “I don’t understand why the (district) includes the clean-burning and EPA approved stoves in their ban. They are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution.”

Patrick Oster, owner of Buck Stoves, Pools & Spas in Santa Rosa, said gas stoves and fireplaces are an option for those who live in suburban areas of Sonoma County, where natural gas distribution is available.

But like Lerum, Oster pointed out that new wood-burning products are not the same “dirty” products they used to be decades ago.

“We consider what we have a clean burning product,” Oster said. “We’re carbon neutral.”

19 Responses to “Sonoma County leads in ‘spare the air’ complaints”

  1. Larry White says:

    I say do away with CARB! On second thought maybe about 95% of gov’t!

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  2. Van says:

    It’s disheartening to live in a society that pits neighbor against neighbor. For what? Utopia? I don’t recall Utopia being about paranoia, suspicion, big brother, control, invasion of privacy or any number of the things we face today. We are not better for it, nor are we advancing as a society. Sure, we may be healthier physically but it’s the mental well being that concerns me. Taking away and /or demonizing the pleasures in life is not the answer.

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  3. Kay Tokerud says:

    There are so many new rules for us that they must use citizens to rat out their neighbors. The new Big Brother police state can’t possibly enforce everything without the help of the green Kool-aid drinking duped public. By the time these unwitting greenshirts realize that they are assisting in the dismantling of our once great nation it will be too late for their kids too.

    In fact, Sonoma County has been unofficially named “ground zero” for the implimentation of the globalist UN Agenda 21 Sustainable Development plan. They, (who are they?) includes the World Bank, many multi-national corporations, 179 nations that are implementing UN Agenda 21, countless thousands of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), environmental non-profit groups, the Democratic Party, communists, who did I miss? In Hitler’s days, wherever 3 people were gathered one was a spy.

    During my about 7 years of resisting the Sustainable Development sweep here in Sonoma County we’ve had spies sent into every political meeting we ever held. We are dealing with a serious well-organized force that watches our every move. As the regime ramps up and takes over all systems and information, pretty soon everybody will be monitored and then controlled. That’s the main tool they will be using, information gathering and sharing between nations, NGOs, corporations and other willing participants. Our government sees nothing wrong with giving out our information to other nations which of course includes enemies of the United States. I assert that we are “occupied” by hostile forces right now in the United States. I believe that the unthinkable has already happened and we are living under an occupying force. We are the Resistance.

    Spies, under the auspices of ICLEI (that’s here to help) have reshaped our government from the inside out by changing policies in nearly every area of the United States already. Merely “kicking ICLEI out” is not enough because the Agenda 21 policies are already in place. Until we can educate and convince our elected officials that this is and has happened, only then will we have any chance of rolling back the advancement of the new regime. The new regime acts as a shadow government through unelected boards and commissions, government agencies and groups empowered with grants of our tax dollars. The additional 5-6 trillion the Obama administration spent in 4 years went a long way in implementing UN Agenda 21 Sustainable Development.

    No matter how far they have already advanced it is still not too late to resist. Help your neighbor, don’t report them. Don’t fill out any questionaires and spread the word about what the words Sustainable Development really means for Americans. This is the time to see what you are made of.

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  4. Juvenal says:

    Hey tinfoil hat crowd: the GOVERNMENT makes us drive according to lanes, one going one way, the other going the other way,and only allows exceptions according to arbitrary dotted yellow lines. Agenda 21!

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  5. Juvenal says:

    @James Bennett

    So “choking the economy” is bad, choking people is good?

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  6. Frank says:

    soon you will have to pay taxes on the air your breath, oh wait cap and trade
    send all the winers to SF i like the smell of country air, not my neighbors pot

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  7. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Cleaner air is a good thing. It’s also a good thing you can blow off smoke here. I love the scent of smoke, especially the scent of peat smoke.
    I make it a rule never to smoke while I’m sleeping. ~Mark Twain
    Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. ~Tre Cool

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  8. Grapevines says:

    Just more of our personal freedoms being taking away a little at a time. Here we have the smoke nazi’s, and the gun nazi’s, and the beach parking nazi’s.

    And who’s taking these freedoms of ours away? The super majority nazi’s the sheep in this state keep reelecting.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    From FAQs on why the ban of all fireplace burning on Spare the Air days.

    “Why aren’t I allowed to burn in EPA-certified wood stoves, fireplace inserts or pellet stoves during a Winter Spare the Air Alert?”

    “While they burn more cleanly, these wood-burning devices still emit fine particulate air pollution and when the wintertime air pollution reaches unhealthy levels, any burning contributes to excessive air pollution. Therefore, in order to protect the public health of Bay Area residents, the Air District must reduce fine particulate air pollution by banning burning in all types of wood-burning devices on these days.”

    Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but not their own set . . . .

    I retract my previous suggestion that people opposed to clean air might consider Montana as a new home. More a more appropriate residence by far is Beijing. Then one can burn away.

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  10. Mike says:

    What about all those restaurants that have indoor wood burning grills and pizza ovens? Why is that OK but not someone just trying to heat thier home?

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  11. James Bennett says:

    Juvenal: Yeah, we’re ‘leaders” in lotsa stuff.

    Climate Actions Plans, Regional Government (One Bay Area), privatizing public utilities, oppressive water right policies, putting ag. folks out of business, choking the economy, closing the public out of the political process, criminalizing cannabis, etc., etc….

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  12. Juvenal says:

    @James Bennett

    “You guys are recognizing the earmarks of UN Agenda 21 Sustainable Development.”

    Wrong again Jim. That the North Bay leads the Bay Area in “spare the air” citations” is 100% explainable by reference to air pollution readings, which are typically higher than the rest of the Bay Area and available online. No need to go to politics….

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  13. James Bennett says:

    You guys are recognizing the earmarks of UN Agenda 21 Sustainable Development.

    An alphabet of groups created/funded/hi-jacked to reiterate/enforce their oppression.

    ICLEI would eliminate all choices except an electricity monopolization in which your use is ultimately rationed and monitored through your Smart Meter. A level of control in that includes your appliances having an RDF chip that interfaces with the meter.

    All knowing. All controlling.

    A complete Plan for complete control.

    The Agenga for the 21st century.

    Agenda 21.

    PG&E is a Partner.

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  14. GAJ says:

    The number of people who use their massive open fireplaces had dropped significantly since I moved her in the early 80′s.

    Those that do burn use wood stoves, wood stove inserts or pellet stoves, all of which release very little compared to the old days.

    But if you put into place some logical verification system that could easily be done by licensing Chimney Sweeps then that would defeat the whole idea of inspectors sneaking around and neighbor reporting neighbor.

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  15. joe right says:

    Municipalities want to broker energy AND tell you when you can burn for heat. I see how it works.

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  16. Reality Check says:

    Air quality is a racket?! Who would have thought?

    As one who opposes government overreach in many areas, I’m happy to acknowledge its occasional benefits. I remember well the putrid air on some winter nights when everyone had their fireplaces roaring.

    It’s not rocket science to know that too many burning fireplaces on still nights fouls the air. That there are other, cleaner ways to heat a home is also obvious. If some think that’s violation of their Constitutional rights, well, they’re wrong and they probably need to move to Montana.

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  17. The Hammer says:

    Why is it that they never tell you that there exemptions to the no burn days. There needs to be full disclosure by CARB. They should have to pay a fine for not informing the public of these exemptions.

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  18. Kim says:


    You hit that ball out of the park.

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  19. Jim says:

    I’m so sick of the overreaching government. Where is the analysis Mr. Richardson is speaking of? Is it the same analysis that CARB used to put many trucking companies out of business because of “particulate matter”? Who performed this analysis? What is the scientific basis for it? Oh wait, doesn’t matter, the ALMIGHTY air agency has spoken! Us peons can’t question this government agency, we are mere Sheeple who grovel at their feet in hopes of being allowed to avoid paying the excessive PG&E rates heat our homes. How much did PG&E bribe the Legislature to get this whole air quality racket going?

    Glad the government encourages neighbors to report their neighbors. Makes for a great community. The Nazis encouraged this too. Well, since the government is working on implementing more restrictive gun laws (hmmm, like the Nazis did), even though not one of Obama’s suggestions would have stopped the recent school shooting, I guess ratting out your neighbor when he/she is trying to heat their house makes just as much sense.

    I’ll be sure to check the internet to see if the government has granted me permission to efficiently heat my house on Saturday. Oh what a pleasure it would be to get permission.

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