Don't take a deep breath in Clovis and Fresno this holiday season if you smell fireplace smoke. The Valley's haze has become a nasty brew of soot and debris twice the federal health standard.
And it's getting worse.
Nature and the economy have created a perfect storm of dirty air -- the worst December bout for the Fresno-Clovis area in more than a decade.
Despite daily no-burn orders from air authorities, people are lighting wood in their fireplaces, some saying they can't afford high utility bills during these hard economic times. Others burn wood for extra warmth during this unusually frosty December.
Adding to the problem, there have been no storms to clean out the San Joaquin Valley this month. Fireplace soot, diesel exhaust, chemical droplets and other specks hang in the air. Pollution readings keep climbing.
The air is unhealthy for children, the elderly and people with lung and heart problems, air officials say. At times, it has even been unsafe for healthy adults. Doctors say they are seeing more patients with respiratory problems.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is issuing daily wood-burning bans in most of the eight counties in the region to protect the public. Air inspectors write $50 tickets to those who are still lighting wood fires. First offenders can avoid the fine by taking a class on residential wood burning.
"We would love to have clear, healthy air and allow people to choose when they want to burn," said district spokeswoman Jaime Holt. "But we have a soup of pollution out there."
The district advises people to refrain from strenuous outdoor exercise when readings are high, as they have been regularly during December.
Air quality can vary by location from day to day, but as a region, the Valley has had daily air violations for four weeks.
The region has not experienced such conditions since 2000, when readings spiked nearly three times the present-day health standard.
Particle pollution here ranks among the nation's worst but it had improved since 2003, when officials began issuing wood-burning tickets.
Now such tickets have more than doubled this year compared to last year, say district officials.
Air district totals through the beginning of the week showed 390 tickets had been written this year, compared with only 152 at this point last year.
Tickets have been written in all eight Valley counties after the district called a total of 184 countywide burn bans through the beginning of this week. Last year, there had only been 121 bans imposed over the same time period.
The burn bans seem unfair to Marsha Picton Weaver of Clovis. She said she can't afford to fix her broken heater and needs to burn wood. She asked the district for an exemption from the burning bans but hasn't qualified yet.
Exemptions are allowed if there is no natural gas available to the residence or if wood burning is the sole source of heat.
In Weaver's case, a one-season exemption is available for a broken heater, but she has yet to prove her case. A repair estimate must be presented and discussed with the district before the exemption is allowed. Weaver, 62, said she can't afford the estimate.
"My whole family has been sick this year," she said. "I wear so many layers of clothing. It's crazy."
Weaver was cited for burning illegally last year, and she has not burned wood this month, she said.
"I'm cold. And I'm angry," she said. "But I can't afford a fine."
Weaver added that she has asthma, which she said is triggered by breathing cold air. She said she also knows the tiny specks of pollution from a fire can trigger asthma attacks.
Wood smoke is dangerous, health researchers have found. The pollution penetrates deeply into the lungs and can enter the bloodstream.
It has been linked to heart problems and early mortality.
Local doctors said they have no doubt there is a connection between the bad air and respiratory problems right now.
"I'm seeing plenty of asthma and pulmonary patients," said Dr. Alex Sherriffs, a Fowler physician who was named this year to both the Valley air board and the state air governing board. "I ask my patients about it. They tell me it's the bad air."
The emergency room at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno has not seen an unusual rise in patients during the holidays, officials said. But typically, when colds and infections spread through communities during the holidays, people go to their doctors, officials said.
Dr. A.M. Aminian, a Fresno allergist, said his patient load has increased.
"We're seeing a 15% to 20% increase above the scheduled visits," Aminian said. "It's a real bad time."