Pollution rules will put a damper on fireplace use

Times Staff Writer

Curling up in front of a cozy wood fire on a nippy night will be banned in many parts of Southern California on bad air days under new regulations passed Friday by regional air regulators.

Citing public health concerns in the heavily polluted Los Angeles Basin, the South Coast Air Quality Management District board voted unanimously to impose fines on homeowners who burn wood in fireplaces or at outdoor sites on high-pollution days during winter months -- about two dozen days in a typical year.

“This is a fair trade-off,” district Executive Director Barry Wallerstein said. “To get to clean air in Southern California, we all have to individually take greater responsibility for the air pollution we cause.”

Builders will be prohibited from installing wood-burning fireplaces in new homes, and it will be illegal to install one when remodeling. Gas-burning fireplaces will be allowed.

Restaurants with wood-fired ovens, such as California Pizza Kitchen, will not be affected by daily bans. Nor will homeowners who rely on a fireplace for heat or have properties at an elevation above 3,000 feet.


Coastal areas that don’t experience as many high-pollution days probably will be unaffected. Beach fires and ceremonial fires used by tribes will be allowed.

Fireplaces are used in about 1.4 million of the 5 million households governed by the district, producing on average 6 tons a day of particulate soot in the air basin, according to the district.

Numerous studies have linked fine particulate matter, which sinks deep into the lungs, to increased lung and respiratory problems. State officials say an estimated 5,000 premature deaths each year in the region are linked to fine particulate exposure.

About 106 tons of fine particulate soot is emitted every day in the Los Angeles area, according to the district. The new regulations will reduce that by an average of about 1 ton a day.

The winter wood-burning ban will apply in areas where forecasts show federal daily limits for fine particulate matter will be exceeded. That will amount to about two dozen days from November to March each year, regulators said.

Residents most likely to be affected include those in the Inland Empire and the San Gabriel Valley, where soot carried by prevailing winds is trapped by mountains.

Some people see any kind of ban as an invasion of home and hearth.

“You’re not going to regulate my chimney,” Stewart Cumming of San Bernardino told the board during a heated public hearing in Diamond Bar. He vowed to continue using his fireplace as he chose.

He and others said it made no sense for the district to pursue such a small pollution source while its other policies allow large polluters to buy exemptions from stiff air pollution limits.

“But you’re going to come into my house and tell me where, when and how I can burn wood in my fireplace?” Cumming asked. “I’m not really following the contradiction here very well.”

“This is personal for a lot of people,” said Burten Carraher, who builds custom fireplaces and chimneys. “Fireplaces are not used that often in Los Angeles. But for people who do, it’s a place of comfort.

“It’s a place where they relax, and I cannot imagine the number of fireplaces used for that purpose should be addressed in this major, major manner. . . . This is a personal pleasure. It’s one of the few things they can enjoy -- besides a television, I guess -- that makes it a home.”

Southland regulators said federal and state laws require them to go after every possible pollution source. More than a dozen other air pollution districts in California already have fireplace restrictions in place.

Some homeowners and health organizations wanted stricter bans, saying they were sick of choking on neighbors’ smoke, which aggravates asthma and other potentially deadly health conditions.

One Redlands woman at the hearing described coughing and “expectorating” every evening during a regular walk through her neighborhood when wood fires are burning.

“This is very tame; this is really the minimum we need to be doing,” said Martin Schlageter of the Coalition for Clean Air.

District enforcers said they would count on peeved neighbors as the front line in enforcing the new rules, with inspectors responding to phone complaints of illegal smoke. Fines will run as high as $500 per violation.

The agency deleted a provision that Realtors said would have further hurt an already sagging real estate market: requiring wood-burning fireplaces to be removed or blocked off when a home was sold.

Colleen Callahan of the American Lung Assn.'s Los Angeles office argued unsuccessfully that the board should restore the measure.

“When a potential homeowner is seeking to purchase a home, they’re not going to say, ‘Where’s the wood?’ They’re going to say, ‘Where’s the clean air in Southern California?’ ” she said.

Board members also granted a request by home builders to hold off on enforcing the construction ban for a year. District officials estimate the cost of installing a natural-gas fireplace is about $500 more than a traditional wood-burning one. The overall ban on wood burning will begin in November 2011, to give the public time to learn about the program.

The board also approved a $500,000 program to give cash incentives to homeowners who replace polluting fireplaces with cleaner natural-gas models. The district is seeking proposals from large home-improvement chains to design and implement that program.

Salesmen for natural gas fired hearth and barbecue grills were on hand at the hearing and outside displaying their wares.

“This is not the end of using your fireplace by any means,” said John Crouch of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Assn.

For more details, go to /445/PR445_Version_E.pdf.