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