Jon McCauley can tell you when air pollution is bad.
His lungs tighten, his fatigue worsens.
Wood smoke is the leading culprit, as it rises from chimneys and pushes air quality into or near the unhealthy category.
McCauley and other people with lung problems are the first to suffer, forced to stay indoors to reduce their exposure to air pollution. Particularly bad air can send some of them to the hospital.
“The pollution is bad stuff,” said McCauley, 69, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Air pollution has troubled Spokane and parts of North Idaho for decades, a seeming anomaly in an area known for tree-lined landscapes rather than belching smokestacks. The health threat posed by sooty air is no different, though.
Keeping the air from getting worse has taken years of work by government agencies that rely on cooperation from residents who like wood heat.
And while Spokane has been meeting clean air standards, the numbers show that the amount of pollution here is still a significant problem that could teeter into the unhealthful range if more people start lighting fires or as the population grows.
“It’s about keeping the air as healthy as we can in our neighborhoods,” said Lisa Woodard, public information officer for the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.
The last pollution episode came in January, reaching its peak over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
Regulators initially banned use of noncertified stoves and fireplaces. When that wasn’t enough to keep air quality out of the unhealthful range, they ordered a ban on all indoor and outdoor burning.
Inspectors looked across the area for violators.
They found one man who was burning wood in his garage after he had previously been contacted about not following the law. He received a notice of violation, which carries a fine of $200.
Since 2002, the clean air agency has issued 21 violation notices, including nine for burning during restricted periods.
Violation notices are issued in cases of repeated problems, not usually on a first-time complaint.
For the most part, inspectors find that people are willing to comply, Woodard said.
After receiving a complaint about excessive smoke or illegal burning, the agency typically sends a letter telling a resident that there may be a problem with the way they burn wood, officials said.
The letters include educational materials to help wood burners keep pollution to a minimum.
The next step is a warning: About 60 to 80 are issued each year.
“We definitely go the education route first,” Woodard said.
Spokane Valley residents Herb Usher and Gloria Martin found out that way.
They said they like the feel of heat from wood, which they harvest off family properties north of Spokane.
But when they recently purchased a new clean-burning wood stove with a catalytic converter, they ran into problems.
“It didn’t really come with an instruction book,” Martin said.
The problem came at night when they choked down the air supply, which kept the wood smoldering until morning but released too much smoke.
After getting a letter from the clean air agency, they increased air flow to minimize smoke and still have coals in the morning.
Because of the letter, Martin said, “We are a lot more conscious of the smoke coming out of our chimney.”
Inspector Russ Neumiller said he tells people to wait 20 minutes after they stoke a fire to throttle down on the air flow. The idea is to make the stove burn cleanly enough that no visible smoke can be seen coming from the chimney.
“It will get down to just heat waves if everything is running as it should,” he said.
The federal government enforces air quality standards based on averaging the second-worst day of each year over a three-year period. Spokane has managed to stay in compliance even though the government has been tightening standards over the past six years based on evidence of the health risk from smoke. It appears that clean-burning practices and public compliance with burn bans have helped Spokane avoid exceeding the limits and violating government standards. From 1999 through 2012, the Spokane region exceeded the air quality standard for 24-hour periods on just 25 days. They weren’t considered violations because standards are based on averages.
Pierce County and Yakima, however, both have been in violation of federal standards and could face sanctions.
The narrow valleys of North Idaho, particularly the Pinehurst area in the Silver Valley, also have wood smoke problems, but the state has used voluntary restrictions to keep pollution levels from rising beyond limits.
The problem lies with the tiny particles that make up wood smoke. They are much smaller than the width of a human hair and can travel deep into the lungs.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these particles can cause irritation, coughing, breathing difficulty and irregular heartbeat. They aggravate asthma and may lead to heart attacks. Premature death is a possibility for people with heart or lung disease.
What makes the problem difficult is the nature of the Pacific Northwest’s climate and geography.
Trapped, dirty air
Air pollution is not typically a problem when low-pressure systems sweep across the region with rain or snow and wind to dissipate the dirty air.
But when stable air returns under higher air pressure, watch out.
Often, the high pressure arrives with a shot of cold air flowing southward from Canada, causing a temperature inversion. Cold air pools on the ground and cannot move because of the warmer air above.
Some years are worse than others. Spokane went from 2008 through 2010 without any burning restrictions.
Air-quality-driven burn ban regulations went into effect in 1988, but residents who have no other source of heat can apply for an exemption. There are currently 20 on file in Spokane.
In addition to the restrictions and bans, there are limits on the amount of smoke that can come from a chimney after a 20-minute startup period. The “opacity limit” rule says smoke cannot obscure more than 20 percent of the background. About half of the 21 violation notices issued by the agency since 2002 involved opacity limits.
It’s also illegal to burn garbage, painted wood, junk mail and paper. Using a small amount of newsprint to light a fire is acceptable.
The clean air agency has been offering stove replacement grants of $500 to $1,000 to replace noncertified stoves and those built before 1995. The agency has helped residents trade out 110 stoves over the life of the program.
The clean air agency has plenty of tips for burning cleanly, including making sure wood has had at least one year of aging after it has been cut, split, stacked and covered.
“It boils down to being responsible when you burn wood,” the agency’s Woodard said. “After you get that wood stove fired up, go out and look at the chimney.”