The La Niña weather pattern has brought stagnant and drier-than-average conditions to the valley, and last month tied December 1989 as the driest December on record, according to a Dec. 29 statement from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Anthony Presto, the agency’s media contact for the Northern District — which includes San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties — said the conditions are causing particulate pollution to become trapped over the valley.
That trapping has led to more than 20 “unhealthy” days this burning season, which runs annually from November to February — compared with just five “unhealthy” days in the county during the entire 2010-11 season.
As a result, the agency has declared daily residential burning bans for almost a month straight — including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Burning bans prohibit the use of outdoor chimneys and fire pits, as well as the burning of wood, pellets and manufactured fire logs in home fireplaces and stoves.
From Nov. 1 to Dec. 28, there were 15 burning ban days declared in San Joaquin County, according to the district’s statement.
“It was very unfortunate that the bans had to be during those times,” Presto said, “but when it comes to public safety and health, nothing is more important.”
Though the valley had some of its cleanest air on record during the past two burning seasons, La Niña ended that streak. Since Nov. 1, San Joaquin County has been cited 15 times for exceeding the federal air-quality standards at PM2.5 levels (particle matter smaller than 2½ microns). The entire air district has received 120 violations this year, compared with 72 during the entirety of the previous season.
Presto said that with these conditions, the issuance of burning bans “is essential to reducing the problem.” A high volume of residential fires can increase particulate pollution — which includes small pieces of ash, soot, liquid droplets and other airborne matter — in the air. The matter can cause respiratory disease and cancer, lung infections, heart attacks and stroke, and it can exacerbate cardiac disease.
“It’s a terrible problem,” Presto said. “There isn’t too much we can do about it, except do our best to not make it worse than it already is.”
Residents who choose not to respect the burning bans can face a $50 fine for a first offense — a cost that increases for repeat offenders, Presto said. A team of air-quality compliance officers who are already monitoring “permitted sources” in the Northern District will “take a small time out of their day and try and catch violators,” according to Presto. Potential violators can also be reported by calling the Air District at 800-281-7003.
“If they see smoke coming out of a chimney, they will produce a violation and send it to the violator in the mail,” he said. “It will always come in the mail, because we do not knock on doors.”
Only residents who live in an area where there is no natural gas service or who have a wood-burning stove or fireplace as their only source of heat are exempt from the burn bans.
Daily burning ban notices are issued daily at 4:30 p.m. and are available at www.valleyair.org/aqinfo/woodburnpage.htm, by calling 800-766-4463 or by subscribing to the air district’s air-quality forecast at www.valleyair.org/lists/list.htm.
• Contact Joel Danoy at email@example.com.
Clean burning tips
• Ensure firewood is clean, seasoned and dry before burning it. Unseasoned wood smolders and creates more emissions.
• Never burn trash, magazines, newspapers, plastics or other materials not designed to burn in fireplaces or stoves. Doing so is illegal and hazardous.
• Replace old solid fuel-burning equipment with cleaner EPA Phase II-certified or pellet-fueled devices, or install natural gas or propane devices. Natural gas and propane devices are not subject to Air District wood-burning rules.
• For an ambience fire in an open fireplace, a manufactured fire log may be a cleaner alternative to wood.
SOURCE: San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.