Magazine article Sunset

Where There's Smoke: When She Discovers That Her Woodstove Might Be a Gross Polluter, Allison Arieff Is Determined to Figure out How to Spare the Air and Keep Those Home Fires Burning

Magazine article Sunset

Where There's Smoke: When She Discovers That Her Woodstove Might Be a Gross Polluter, Allison Arieff Is Determined to Figure out How to Spare the Air and Keep Those Home Fires Burning

Article excerpt

I WAS LISTENING to the radio while driving to work the other day, when I caught the tail end of a story about smoke school. Though it sounds like a working title for a Cheech & Chong movie, smoke school, or rather smoke-compliance school, turns out to be a little like traffic school: If you live in an area that restricts wood burning and you get caught by an air quality enforcement officer (or a smoke-sensitive neighbor) burning wood on designated no-burn days (about 10 to 20 each winter), you will be fined--or, in some places, offered the option to attend a class on proper wood-burning techniques.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I live in San Francisco, and luckily for me, the closest smoke school is in Sacramento, which means I won't be spending any of my free Saturdays with other fireplace scofflaws. Because, really, doesn't it sound a little like detention?

Still, even learning that something like smoke school exists sent me into a bit of a panic. I'd heard rumblings about how one wasn't supposed to use fireplaces anymore but hadn't paid much attention. People have been burning wood since the beginning of time, haven't they? What had transpired to make cozying up in front of a roaring fire a crime?

These questions hit close to home, not only because I'm interested in what we can do collectively to protect the environment, but also because a few years ago, my husband and I invested a small fortune in one of those sleek Scandinavian woodstoves, and I was none too keen about the prospect of transforming that functional beauty into a merely decorative object. But I didn't want to violate the law or jeopardize the health and safety of others either.

So I decided to make a few phone calls to clarify things. However, pursuing the "right" answer--to burn or not to burn--was like solving other sustainability dilemmas we face every day. Farmed salmon or wild? Paper or plastic? Local or organic? Sometimes it's not all that simple.

I began by contacting an air quality management district, one of the entities that typically run smoke-compliance programs. Each regional district has its own mandates and programs--and not all offer smoke school. The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District does, so I started there, speaking with Lori Kobza of the communications office. For Kobza, burning wood is not to be taken lightly.

I quickly began to see how smoke-compliance school might feel like traffic school, particularly the part where they show you those car-crash videos. Kobza explained that woodsmoke causes almost 50 percent of fine particulate matter in the air in the fall and winter. And that those particles are "so fine that they can get into your lungs and bloodstream, and can cause heart disease and stroke. Particulate matter is unhealthy even for healthy people to breathe."

If Kobza had wanted me to fear my fireplace, she'd succeeded. But she had an easy solution: switching to natural gas or electric heat, neither of which emits particulates.

But when did this all happen? I wanted to know. When did burning wood become so toxic? Weren't pioneers doing it on the frontier?

"We are not living on the frontier anymore," Kobza replied.

Fair enough. But what Kobza didn't mention is that gas, unlike wood, is not a renewable resource. I needed more information (and, frankly, I wanted better news), so I went to the opposite end of the spectrum and visited Okells Fireplace, the San Francisco showroom where we'd purchased our woodstove. …

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