The smoke police

Bay Area air quality inspectors on the alert

  • Simon Winer on smoke patrol in San Francisco for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

    Courtesy BAAQMD
 

When smoke curls out of an East Bay chimney and into Simon Winer's nostrils, he typically identifies it as one of three distinct odors: the waxy smell of an artificial fire-starter (such as a Duraflame log); the plasticky effluvium of incinerating garbage; or the spicy aroma of burning wood. Yet for Winer -- a tall, affable senior air quality inspector for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District -- the scent of oak or madrone is anything but therapeutic. Even the sweetest wood smoke is laden with "fine particulate" -- solids and droplets roughly 200 times smaller than the dot on this i.

On cold, calm days, residential smoke pools in the greater San Francisco basin, hazing the air. It's the largest source of the region's fine particulate, accounting for 30 percent of its volume throughout the nine counties of the Air District, and as much as 70 percent in Marin and Napa. When inhaled, these particles aggravate asthma and chronic heart disease. In 1994, the average household fire was estimated to result in $40 in economic loss, including medical expenses, for Bay Area communities.

Now, whenever particulate concentrations are predicted to exceed EPA standards from November through February, the Air District issues alerts banning the use of fireplaces and woodstoves unless wood is a household's only source of heat. "Spare the Air," it's called. Winer's duty, in part, is enforcement.

The regulation's most vocal critics find it "draconian," notes Kristine Roselius of the Air District. (Much to her chagrin, the Bay Area had to Spare the Air on both Thanksgiving and Christmas Day in 2009, a rather un-festive climatic coincidence.) Yet Winer, an inspector since 1991, believes that "people don't do the right thing until they are legislated into doing the right thing." Last winter, there were 11 Spare the Air alerts; so far this season, there have been just seven, a difference chalked up to variable weather.

In 1955, the California Legislature created the Air District "to protect and improve public health, air quality, and the global climate." The Air District initiated the Spare the Air program in 1991, but winter smoke bans only became mandatory in 2008. Similar programs recently have appeared in the megacities of Puget Sound, Wash., and Washoe County, Nev., as well as isolated towns like Telluride, Colo. Today in the Bay Area, 70 inspectors work to help suppress illegal wood burning -- at times by literally following their noses. Each inspector is responsible for about 20,000 chimneys.

Of course, the Air District doesn't demand Santa-esque dexterity of its inspectors; nor does enforcement involve knocking on doors, as citations are delivered by mail. Many inspectors, in fact, spend much of their time monitoring chimneys in two baseline communities to gauge how many people kindle fires under various conditions. Sometimes, their studies involve pointing an expensive infrared camera out the window of an unmarked Toyota Prius while coasting down a nighttime street at 8 mph.

"We control for weekends," Winer explains. "We control for temperature, control for holidays."

Spare the Air's outreach is extensive and, in individual neighborhoods, the bans' effects have been clear. Still, their overall impact on burning habits and the region's health remains to be seen. In 2007-'08, only 18 percent of eligible households acknowledged altering their behavior because of the Spare the Air campaign. But Roselius points out that last Christmas, under an alert, the Bay Area's air stayed below the EPA's particulate limit -- most unusual for a holiday.

During a wood-smoke ban, inspectors take on two extra patrols of two hours each in the morning and evening. On foot or by Prius, they cruise a neighborhood, sniffing out rogue chimneys. Often they drive to a high point to survey rooftops for telltale wisps. Like stalking hunters, they always start downwind.

The inspectors also follow up on citizen complaints. About 2,200 tips have come in this winter, leading to 301 citations. In one episode, a prodigious eucalyptus tree toppled in a certain neighborhood. Suddenly, the Air District received "a rash" of smoke complaints, and Winer soon came face to face with a stack of green logs just off the street, free for the hauling. "It was interesting to trace who got wood from that tree," says Winer. Like other unseasoned firewood, the eucalyptus produced especially dirty smoke -- thick white plumes that flouted the Air District's "opacity rule."

As Winer sat in his Prius one day, recording yet another eucalyptus-borne infraction, a man approached him. "Hey, I can see what you're doing," the stranger declared. "And I just want to thank you -- my wife is asthmatic." Such is the typical story, says Winer, of those who "rat" on their neighbors: One in seven Bay Area residents has a respiratory condition. (Forty-five percent of the region's residents claim they are willing to report violators on no-burn days.)

Winer explained to the man that his offending neighbor would be sent an initial violation, including a copy of the rules and the skinny on wood smoke's iniquities. Then he reassured the complainant that the Air District rarely deals with repeat burners: This season, there have been just seven $400 second violations. (No fine accompanies the first.) Nonetheless, Winer said, this specific case might take weeks to solve, as remnants of the once-towering tree have crept through the surrounding streets, first in the trunks of cars, then as all-but-invisible particulate.

Finally, Winer asked the man, and his wife, to be patient: It's not so easy to arrest smoke. But the chase is on.

Nick Neely is an HCN intern.

For more information:

Bay Area Spare the Air

EPA Particulate Matter information

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...