Spare the Air

Sustainable Danville Area Tip of the Month – February 2014

By Debbie Weiss

On Christmas Eve, I wanted a wood-burning fire in my living room fireplace.   The Yule Log on TV just wasn’t going to cut it.  But it was a winter “Spare the Air” day, so Bay Area residents were barred from burning wood or other solid fuels in their fireplaces.   If I were found violating this regulation, I’d be fined $100 dollars for a first time offense or required to take a wood smoke awareness class.  A second violation holds a fine of $500 dollars, so the penalty for a crackling fire on a Spare the Air day is painful.

Any wood burning fire adds to the local air pollution, releasing soot into the air.  Much as I missed the holiday flames, I satisfied myself that I wouldn’t be contributing to the sore throats and lung irritation of folks who went outside, particularly those with vulnerable health due to respiratory ailments. I sighed and revved up Netflix with its streaming online fireplace.

The website,, lists when there’s an alert in effect and you can sign up to receive e-mail or text message warnings the day before the alert goes into effect. Other ways to check for an alert include calling (877) 4-NO-BURN, visiting, or by using Spare the Air phone apps.

The Bay Area Quality Management District has called for 29 Winter Spare the Air Days this season.  There are usually fifteen to twenty winter Spare the Air days, so as of January 19th there have been more than usual. The District can issue a winter Spare the Air alert from November 1 through February 28th.  Winter weather consisting of cold, still days with stagnant air traps wood smoke close to the ground, concentrating the air pollution from the smoke to unhealthy levels. Wood smoke is the largest source of winter particulate pollution.  Particulate matter, generally soot, consists of microscopically small solid or liquid particles suspended in the air.

On winter Spare the Air days, wood-burning fires are banned.  The ban includes EPA-certified wood stoves, fire place inserts, and pellet stoves.  Though these devices burn more cleanly than regular fireplaces, they still emit fine particulate air pollution.  Similarly, outside fires like bonfires and fires in outdoor fire pits are banned as are fires using manufactured logs.  So, my cache of Duraflame logs in the garage isn’t going to help when an alert is in effect.

The Air Quality Index categorizes air pollution on a scale of zero to 500.    The index is based on federal air quality standards for six major pollutants; ozone, carbon, monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and two sizes of particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5.  PM10 refers to a particle less than or equal to 10 microns in size and PM 2.5 to those smaller or equal to 2.5 microns.   Of the two sizes, the smaller, PM2.5, is the more serious health concern because the smaller particles can travel more deeply into people’s lungs than the larger ones.  In the wintertime, wood smoke contributes about one-third of the overall particulate matter pollution.  Motor vehicles also contribute a significant amount.

Spare the Air days are important because increased, trapped concentrations of pollution can impact people’s health.  Breathing pollution can cause people to suffer from throat irritation, congestion and chest pain. Air pollution can inflame the lining of the lungs, cause shortness of breath, trigger asthma and aggravate conditions like bronchitis and emphysema.  Long term exposure to ozone can reduce lung function.  High levels of ozone are particularly harmful to young children, seniors and those with respiratory or heart conditions.

During a summer Spare the Air alert, the main way to help is to drive less.   We can walk, bike, telecommute (if possible), car pool, link errands together, use public transit and generally avoid driving unnecessarily.  We shouldn’t use gas-powered gardening equipment like lawn mowers and leaf blowers.   If we want to barbecue, we should use a gas grill instead of charcoal.  We should also avoid using aerosol spray cans, like those containing paint or hair spray.  And, as always, we can reduce our use of household energy.

So “Spare the Air” spares the environment, helping to reduce air pollution when it’s needed the most and, in doing so, sparing our health, especially those who are most vulnerable to poor air quality.  On Christmas Eve, I revved up the TV fireplace, but wanting to enjoy more fires – even during Spare the Air days – I visited a local business and  invested in ceramic logs that quickly turned my gas starter into a gas-burning fireplace. Sitting in front of the fire with friends, I relished the fact that we were sharing good wine and good times – and not PM2.5 particle matter.  

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Reprinted with permission from Danville Today News


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