November 8, 2007 in Voices

Wood smoke taken seriously

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Holly Pickett photo

Air quality technician Mark Rowe reattaches an air intake apparatus to the top of an air pollution monitor on top of the Spokane Regional Health District on Nov. 1.
(Full-size photo)

Bill and Phyllis King of Spokane have a fireplace, but like a lot of homeowners, they have converted it to burn natural gas instead. They also have a wood stove.

“We haven’t used it since Ice Storm (in 1996),” Bill King said.

That is a good thing for everyone.

Wood smoke is a major contributor to air pollution in Spokane and Kootenai counties, a problem that the federal government is taking more seriously today.

New federal regulation s are reducing nearly by half the amount of smoke that is allowed in the air. That will result in more frequent wood-burning restrictions throughout the heating season, but it also will be a health benefit. Studies show that air pollution leads to breathing problems and can harm people with heart conditions.

Stoves or fireplaces built since 1990 and certified by the government are typically exempted from the restrictions in Spokane County because they are designed to burn cleanly if operated properly.

Residents who like to burn wood can help with the pollution problem by paying attention to how they manage their fires, and by purchasing a new clean-burning wood stove or fireplace. Burning clean, dry wood and keeping smoke emissions to a minimum are helpful for the environment, officials said.

While government regulations are putting additional restrictions on wood burning, the trend in stove shops has been away from wood burning appliances and toward natural gas. The newer versions of gas fireplaces are designed to mimic the warmth of a wood fire through the use of ceramic logs that radiate heat into the room.

Leah Hauer, owner of Spokane Fireplace & Patio in Spokane, said that while natural gas appliances are selling better than wood stoves, there are still a lot of people who want to heat with wood. A lot of wood burners are doing it because they like to gather and cut wood, or they have a ready supply of logs to burn.

“For a lot of young couples, they enjoy going out and cutting the wood,” she said.

At $225 a cord, wood has gotten more expensive than natural gas, she said. Plus, wood requires a lot more work.

One customer at her shop said he quit burning wood as he got older. “My back retired,” he said.

Yvonne Schroeder of Spokane said she agrees. “Don’t forget when you have a wood stove, you have to chop wood,” she said.

Wood smoke contains very tiny particles of soot that can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Research shows that when air quality is impaired, the number of visits to emergency rooms and doctor offices rises. People with heart and lung problems can be threatened by smoke, said Cindy Thompson, director of the American Lung Association in Eastern Washington.

“It’s a very important health issue for our community,” she said.

The federal government reduced the amount of allowable smoke pollution from particulates measuring 2.5 microns or smaller – known as PM 2.5. The new limit is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air under previous standards.

As a result, the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency has revised its air quality regulations to reflect the lower threshold. Starting last month, the agency will issue burning bans when air quality reaches 20 micrograms of fine particulates, down from a previous level of 35 micrograms. Burn bans are called when weather conditions are not expected to improve, largely during days when high pressure traps cold air near the ground in what is known as a temperature inversion.

When the agency declares a yellow alert, wood burning is prohibited in noncertified stoves and fireplaces in the county smoke control zone. Appliances built since 1990 are certified. It is illegal to advertise, sell or install a noncertified wood stove.

The number of yellow stage bans is expected to increase from about three a year to more than a dozen. A red stage burning ban applies to all wood burning devices.

The “trigger” point for stage red bans is now 30 micrograms of soot per cubic meter of air, less than the old trigger of 35 micrograms. The Spokane region can expect an average of three Stage Red bans per year.

The smoke control zone includes Spokane, Spokane Valley and urban areas north to Owens Road, east to the Idaho border, south to Gibbs Road and west to Hayford Road.

In Idaho last year, the Department of Environmental Quality received a grant to purchase 45 non-certified stoves in Pinehurst.

A similar purchase program was done in Libby, Mont., to switch homeowners to certified devices.

Spokane’s Clean Air Agency is planning a buy-back replacement program after the first of the year, officials said.

Even the cleanest-burning device still must be operated properly. Only dry, seasoned wood should be burned, and a fire needs to be given plenty of air to prevent it from smoldering, said Mark Boyle, analyst for the DEQ in Kootenai County.

Unlike Washington, environmental laws in Idaho do not allow for burning bans against residential use. Instead, regulators have the authority to ban outdoor burning of slash piles, but Boyle said compliance is not as good as it should be. Regulators have tried to keep pollution down by asking the public to voluntarily stop burning wood indoors.

With the new, tighter federal limits on smoke pollution, some locales in Idaho may be forced to tighten burning regulations. Twin Falls has a smoke control law.

Boyle said DEQ is working with land owners, timber companies and slash burners to get compliance on burning in the fall. The problem arises each year on Oct. 20 when the state no longer requires fire safety permits for slash burning, which becomes the starting date for a lot of piles to be torched.

As a result, outdoor burning was banned in North Idaho at least five times in recent weeks. Boyle said compliance is difficult to achieve with smaller land owners.

In the Spokane County urban area, the clean air agency has four inspectors to monitor compliance with burning rules.

People who allow too much smoke to go out of their chimneys or stove pipes are contacted at their front door by an inspector who has the authority to issue citations with fines of up to $600.

The inspectors try initially to get homeowners to understand the rules and to operate their stoves or fireplaces properly.

State law prohibits excessive chimney smoke, which is measured by the visual opacity of the smoke. Opacity of 40 percent is illegal. Fires may exceed that level for only short periods of stoking or starting the fire.

Only untreated wood may be burned. Garbage, paper, painted wood and other objects are illegal to burn.

New pollution-monitoring sites are being set up in downtown Deer Park, Sunset Elementary School in Airway Heights and Broadway Elementary School in Spokane Valley.

Also, a temporary site in Liberty Lake is being upgraded to a permanent site.

“I think there’s nothing wrong with wood burning as long as you do it as cleanly as possible,” said Bill Dameworth, director of the clean air agency in Spokane.

Wood has one advantage over other fuels. Because the supply is constantly being renewed through tree growth, the carbon dioxide released by combustion is not considered as large of a threat to the atmospheric rise in carbon dioxide, which many scientists believe is causing global warming,

The public largely complies with smoke control rules and burn bans, Dameworth said. “I think most people are interest in not causing a problem here,” Dameworth said.

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