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Spare The Air Alerts: Do People Really Get Caught?

Air quality officials say they issue an average of 100 to 200 complaints on every day there is an alert

Wood cannot be burned in fireplaces on Spare the Air days
Wood cannot be burned in fireplaces on Spare the Air days
Think you won't get caught if you light up your fireplace on a Spare the Air day?

Air quality officials say... think again.

Tom Flannigan, a public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said the agency receives 100 to 200 complaints on every day there is an alert issued.

Less than 20 percent of those complaints eventually lead to citations.

Last season, there were 10 Winter Spare the Air Day alerts. On those days, 2,316 complaints were received and 178 citations were issued.

In 2011-2012, there were 15 Spare the Air days. There were 3,777 complaints received and 359 citations issued.

So far this winter, there have been 22 of the wood burning prohibitions ordered. That includes the alert in place for Sunday.

Flannigan said there is no reason to suspect the average number of complaints is any lower.

"Yes, you can get caught," said Flannigan.

Flannigan said the number one way by far the agency catches violators is from complaints filed by nearby residents.

Each of those homes that received a complaint is mailed an information packet on air pollution and Spare the Air days.

The air quality district has 60 inspectors who follow up on the complaints.

On each Spare the Air Day, they take the addresses of the complaints from the previous alert day and drive by those homes.

If smoke from a chimney, barbecue, fire pit or other area is seen, the homeowner is mailed a citation.

If an inspector happens to see another house violating the wood burning ban along their route, that residence will also get a citation in the mail.

First-time violators are given the option of taking a wood smoke awareness class or paying a $100 fine. Second violations result in a $500 fine and the penalties rise with each violation after that.

The Spare the Air program began in 2008. Flannigan said the agency receives more complaints every year because more people are obeying the wood burning prohibition and don't like it when a neighbor doesn't.

"The people who are violating tend to stand a little more now," he said.

Flannigan said the Bay Area's unusual weather in December has caused the district to issue a large number of Spare the Air alerts.

He said there is usually rain or wind on most December days. There is neither right now.

"These are unique circumstances," he said.

Chris Nicholson December 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM
Terrifying. First, only about 1/3 of the time does "Spare the Air" alert turn out to be accurate. And, within that 1/3, it generally is BARELY above 100 AQI and only in one or two isolated areas. The no-burn policy, as implemented, is not rationally connected to any public health benefit. Part of me thinks it is clever propaganda, but Occam's Razor suggests that it is simply garden variety self-pepetuating bureaucracy without grown up supervision. As I am fond of noting, the 100 AQI level (which they often predict, but we RARELY reach), is not even the "unhealthy" level per the EPA. That level is 150 and we might hit that in one spot once a year-- and momentary exposure to these levels is not dangerous at all for most people, it's the LONG TERM exposure that is harmful.
Jason Schmidt December 29, 2013 at 01:12 PM
There are SIXTY inspectors in the Bay Area whose job it is to drive around and see if someone is burning a log in their fireplace? The politicians said there was no room for further budget cuts.
Douglas Home December 29, 2013 at 01:37 PM
They are counting on your neighbors to turn you in. Think about this concept for a moment. Let's try to forget about the fact that the government is telling you what you can do in your own living room (is the bedroom next?) Let's just focus on who else has used this "rat out thy neighbor" tactic throughout history and what the results were.
Fred Smith December 30, 2013 at 04:44 PM
During the string of "Spare the Air" days before Christmas I was driving regularly to the City and on most days, visibility was over 20 miles - hardly an example of dangerous levels of particulate pollution. The BAAQMD is totally out of control with this program!
Tim January 02, 2014 at 09:26 AM
Upgrade your homes heating system. Pretty much all my neighbors that cry over spare the air days are original owners with original heating systems. Use some of that Prop 13 savings and upgrade your heating. Besides, you are burning trees that take a long time to grow. And I don't like smoke blowing into my house.
Fred Smith January 02, 2014 at 11:08 AM
I doubt anyone around here heats their home with wood. Masonry fireplaces just don't radiate much heat into the house. I replaced my furnace a few years ago with a 94% efficient unit which warms the house economically but I still like to burn a firelog (which is made from wood waste) in the fireplace to cheer up a winter night. I think that, unless there's a truly compelling public health problem, I should be allowed to do that. The petty and over zealous nature of the "Spare the Air" program undermines the public's trust in government.

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