Michelle Ye Hee Lee
The Valley’s chilly weather may seem like the perfect time to huddle around the fireplace, but that is exactly what worries Maricopa County air-quality officials: the health risks posed by emissions from wood-burning.
The Maricopa County Air Quality Department issues no-burn days when the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality determines air contaminants will reach an unhealthful range based on federal guidelines.
The county usually issues no-burn days around Christmas and New Year’s, when weather conditions trap pollution close to the ground and when families like to light their fireplaces.
But Valley residents continue to violate no-burn days each year. There were 559 complaints of wood-burning for 2010 as of Dec. 29.
Inspectors must witness and document smoke coming out of a residence’s chimney or backyard fire before issuing warnings or violations. That creates a challenge to enforcing no-burn days.
Of the 559 complaints, air-quality inspectors issued four violations and four written warnings.
No-burn days apply specifically to residential wood-burning. There are some exemptions, including if the fireplace is a person’s sole source of heat.
Smoke from wood-burning emits particles so tiny that about 30 of them would make up the width of a human hair.
Although people can sneeze out bigger particles, these settle in the lungs and cause health problems, especially for the elderly, children and people with asthma, or lung or heart disease.
“It’s hard for people with healthy lungs to breathe when it gets really heavy. But for people who are asthmatic or have respiratory conditions, it can be deadly,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter.
Volunteer air-quality inspectors patrol the Valley during evenings around the holidays.
People receive a warning on their first violation of no-burn days. For subsequent violations, they are fined increasing amounts, up to $250.
Witnessing smoke coming out of a residential chimney, fire pit or chiminea isn’t always easy. People can report violations via e-mail or phone. These complaints are dispatched to inspectors who go to the location and try to spot the chimney in action.
Inspectors log and check out every complaint, but the four or five inspectors driving around during a three-hour shift don’t get to all the complaints that night.
On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there were a total of 85 complaints via phone or e-mail.
Michael Burton, environmental specialist and county air-quality inspector, went to five complaint locations during his shift.
Burton cranked down his truck window when he neared the locations to detect smoke by smell. There were hints of smoke in the air at most of his stops.
There was no visible smoke coming out of the houses in question, so he noted to follow up by sending no-burn-day mailers to the neighborhoods.
“Even though the complaint was specific and you can tell there’s something going on, unless you pin it down specifically, you can’t give them a violation,” Burton said.
If there is smoke, as was the case at his fourth stop near Gilbert Road and University Drive in Mesa, Burton runs the address through the department’s database to check for prior violations to determine whether to issue a warning or a fine.
Because it’s difficult for inspectors to witness active smoke, Maricopa County Air Quality Director Bill Wiley said, the department focuses on educating the public about no-burn days by sending fliers to residences and posting them around neighborhoods, and announcing no-burn days via social media.
This year, the department added an outreach effort: posting signs in English and in Spanish along the roads of areas that commonly have wood-burning complaints.
More people are reporting complaints, but no-burn-day compliance remains a “situation of personal rights versus the rights of the general good,” Wiley said.
The goal is to make people aware that no-burn days exist and that burning wood can be harmful to others in their neighborhood, he said.
The Sierra Club’s Bahr said combining education with enforcement is important because more people will follow the rules if they know why they should, especially when some people may feel they are being asked to give up a holiday tradition.
“It’s a big price to pay for ambience, but people’s health is not worth it,” Bahr said. “For your own sake and the sake of your neighbors, it’s important to abide by those no-burn restrictions.”