The San Joaquin Valley’s air was cleaner this winter — maybe because it was a little stormier, foggier and breezier. Or maybe some people avoided their fireplaces because they were confused by the new wood-burning rules.
The clever but most complicated wood-burning rules in a dozen years took hold this winter, along with millions of dollars invested in the cleanest-burning wood stoves and inserts available.
And the serendipitous return of just enough rainfall and the Valley’s notorious fog helped knock down the soot from November to February when 30% of dangerous particle pollution comes from wood fires in city neighborhoods.
Wood-burning restrictions officially ended for the season Saturday after the Valley exceeded the day-long federal particle standard on 45 days, nearly a 37% drop from last year. It was still a higher total than the South Coast Air Basin, which had 25 bad days.
Particle pollution is responsible for hundreds of premature Valley deaths, and soot is one of the biggest problems because it is concentrated where people live. The Valley’s particle pollution is the worst in the nation, but it improved this winter.
“It was definitely not as dry as it was last winter and that helped,” said executive director Seyed Sadredin of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. “People also embraced the changes we made this year.”
Instead of simply either allowing wood fires or not allowing them, the district this winter both lowered and raised the threshold for no-burn days, dividing it into two simultaneous phases.
The first phase is a lower no-burn trigger each day at 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which is far stricter than ever before. The previous level was 30 micrograms.
At the same time, people using the cleanest-burning devices registered with the district were allowed to burn wood until the 65 microgram level — which is much higher than the old no-burn trigger from last year.
So, people using open fireplaces and old burning devices were shut out most of the season. Those with the clean-burning devices were stopped only six times this season. Last year under the old rule, people with the new devices would have been stopped 59 times.
But until the district finishes its analysis, there’s uncertainty about how much effect the rule had or how much confusion there might have been. Only about 3,000 devices were registered — which covers a little more than 1% of the Valley’s households with fireplaces.
Officials hope, however, that a movement has started toward the cleaner-burning devices. Residents applied and received $6.3 million in grant funds to buy certified fireplace inserts and stoves, as well as convert to natural gas-fired fireplaces. The inserts are able to incinerate more of the particles, so they produce less smoke.
“Our best tool in reducing winter-time pollution is residents themselves,” said Sadredin.
Work to be done
The Valley still faces a long battle against particle pollution, known as PM-2.5. The region has long been the nation’s hot spot for PM-2.5 — soot, dust, chemicals and microscopic debris, according to the American Lung Association, which annually ranks air quality around the country.
In last year’s “State of the Air” report from the Lung Association, Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield ranked in order as the three dirtiest cities in the country for particle pollution. The direct sources are fireplaces, vehicles, farming and industrial processes.
The pollution also forms in the air when oxides of nitrogen from vehicles combines with plumes of reactive organic gases from dairies, gasoline and paints. The combination is called ammonium nitrate.
Together, these particles are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the Valley’s 800-plus premature deaths related to air pollution each year.
Even in a cleaner Valley winter, people with asthma and sensitive lungs suffered from it, said Dr. Praveen Buddiga, a Fresno allergist for the last decade.
“I’m seeing a lot of patients reacting to the air quality,” he said. “The elderly and very young people are more susceptible and react faster. Because of the continuing drought, the allergy season is earlier.”
But wood-burning restrictions are not completely accepted among Valley residents. Some say the district has no business stopping them from warming their homes with a fire. Others say the wood-burning heat helps soothe their arthritic conditions.
Those who are caught breaking a burning prohibition can get a notice of violation. The violations can result in fines that start at $50 for the first offense and rise as high as $1,000 for subsequent penalties.
Violation notices dropped 14% compared to last year. The district wrote 470 over the winter. The previous year, there were 537 violation notices.
The restrictions do not apply everywhere in the Valley. There are two exceptions: burning is allowed even on restricted days if you have no other source of heat or if you have no access to natural gas service.
Parts of Madera Ranchos just north of Fresno are exempt from the rules because they have no natural gas. People often heat their homes with wood fires, and neighbors notice.
“Sometimes, the smoke entirely envelops our house,” said resident Richard Gilman. “You can’t stay inside, but you really can’t go outside.”
Air district officials say they will consider regulating those situations as they develop a new plan in 2016 to comply with ever-tightening federal standards.
Health advocates say federal, state and local air-quality leaders need to keep pushing for particle pollution reductions. The debris gets into homes beneath doors and through cracks around windows.
About 30 or 40 of the particles would fit across the width of a human hair. Visible only with an electron microscope, they can easily pass through the body’s defenses and lodge deep in the lungs. Some pass through the lungs into the bloodstream to reach the heart, kidneys and other body organs, creating inflammation.
Buddiga said Valley residents can take simple action to reduce their risks during PM-2.5 episodes. He advised residents to use an over-the-counter sinus rinse to remove the irritating debris from nasal passages.
“Think of it this way,” he said, “it’s like using a water hose to rinse sand off your driveway.”