Sunday Commentary: Proposed Wood Burning Restrictions a Modest Proposal

woodburningIt did not take long for Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning to overreact to the proposed wood burning restrictions by the Davis City Council.  One would think the council was doing something radical like banning fireplaces or wood burning altogether.

Instead, they are proposing restrictions on days where the impact of smoke would be most detrimental to the health of some very sensitive residents, but also impact the health of all residents because the atmospheric conditions would hold the smoke in rather than blow the smoke out and disperse it throughout the valley.

I happen to live with someone who is very sensitive to smoke.  On cool summer mornings, we often open our windows.  Some mornings our neighbor will stand outside and smoke cigarettes.  At levels that I cannot even detect, my wife will start hacking and if we do not close the window fast enough, she needs to use her inhalers.

For people who are sensitive to smoke, cold winter days and the smell of wood burning is enough to send them to ER for breathing treatments.  Is it so unreasonable that the city act to restrict on the 15 to 20 worst days of the year?

People have acted as though this were an ordinance that would ban such wood burning, when in fact, it is a very modest ordinance that will only impact the city on days where it has the potential to be a health hazard – and not just for sensitive people.  Studies have shown that wood-burned smoke is just as harmful as cigarette smoke – the difference is that people do not inhale it at the same level of concentration.

In September, the NRC recommended that the City Council implement a pilot program with respect to posting the allowable burn days on the city website and as resources allow, they “recommend that an additional educational program be implemented to instruct the public on proper fire-starting and fire-burning methods.”

They write, “The NRC recognizes that while many Davis residences find fireplaces and wood burning appliances a desirable amenity, wood smoke consists of fine particles which are regarded as a health hazard by both national and state health professionals.”

“Regional air quality standards have been promulgated identifying maximum ambient levels of particulates in the air tolerable to the general population without adverse health effects,” they continue.  “Unfortunately, use of wood burning appliances under certain weather conditions can result in wood smoke concentrations that significantly exceed these particulate air quality standards and adversely affect residents. The operation of wood burning appliances therefore needs to be regulated so as not to cause significant health risks to susceptible citizens.”

One of the more amusing points that Mr. Dunning makes in his column is the hot September and early October we have had.  There is irony there because by tomorrow, it is quite likely that people will be heating their homes.

Bob Dunning makes much of the urgency ordinance to the point of mocking derision.  But the urgency ordinance allows the ordinance to go into effect immediately.  Without it, the city would not be able to adopt a regular ordinance until December 13 – probably a month or more into the burning season.

A regular ordinance requires a second reading and a 30-day period before it goes into effect.  “The regular ordinance is being pursued in the event that the urgency ordinance findings are challenged and found to be invalid,” staff writes.

As we noted in the previous article – there have been a number of complaints and concerns about both the enforcement process and hardship cases.  This ordinance attempts to address both of those concerns.

The exemptions include the operation “of a U.S. EPA Phase II certified wood burning device or a pellet fueled wood burning heater, provided that the devices do not emit visible emissions, except for one period of not more than twenty minutes within any consecutive four hour period during the start up of a new fire.”

It would also not take effect for “the use of a wood burning device when no gas or electrical service heating system is installed in the structure and the wood burning device is the sole source of interior heat for the structure” or “the use of a wood burning device when electrical power service is not available, during times of temporary service outages.”

In addition, a waiver may be issued if the “director determines that there are compelling economic reasons to grant the waiver that outweigh the adverse impacts to the environment.”

The final point that Mr. Dunning makes bears addressing.

He attempts to downplay the scope of the problem by using the wrong statistical marker.

He writes: “Of the 120 days in the 2009-10 winter burn season, the city of Davis logged 16 complaints concerning wood smoke on ‘no-burn’ days. That’s not much in a city of approximately 15,000 homes. Even more telling, no one from the city has determined the source of the wood smoke for any of the complaints, which would seem to be an elementary question to ask before crafting a wood-smoke ordinance.”

“In the 2010-11 season, there were 61 complaints on ‘no-burn’ days, an increase to be sure, but still very, very low in the great scheme of things,” he writes.  “We also don’t know from the data if there were actually 61 separate individuals filing single complaints or a handful of individuals filing multiple complaints each time the ‘nearest neighbor’ fired up his old wood stove.”

There are several different types of problems with his analysis.

First, he plays a statistical sleight of hand by citing that there were 120 days in the winter burn season, but only 16 complaints.

In fact, 120 days is not the operative statistic.  The critical statistic is not the number of days in the burn season.  That implies that every day had burn restrictions, but in fact, the key statistic was 15 no burn days in 2009-10 and 19 no burn days in 2010-11.

Still a low number of complaints?  Perhaps, but the number of complaints nearly quadrupled between 2009-10 and 2010-11.

How do we interpret that statistic?  We the NRC argues, “The higher percentage of complaints received on No-Burn Days indicates that there was relatively little compliance with the voluntary ‘Don’t Light Tonight’ advisory alerts issued by the YSAQMD in 2010 – 2011.”

But the bigger issue may be that the number of complaints in 2009-10 was understated and that as more people became aware of the problem and the ability to do something about the problem, they lodged more complaints.

The question then becomes is 61 the actual number of complaints or is that too understated?  Bob Dunning asks whether it’s 61 separate individuals filing complaints or a few individuals filing multiple complaints.

Perhaps he can ask himself if that really matters the next time he has to take his daughter to ER because she had an asthma attack brought on by wood burn smoke.

Is it worth inflicting this kind of discomfort on your neighbor so you can burn your fireplace an additional 15 to 20 times a year?  And why is it so unreasonable for the city to protect the health of even a small number of people by putting restrictions on wood burning a few times a year?

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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37 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Proposed Wood Burning Restrictions a Modest Proposal”

  1. rusty49

    I used to love the peanut bitter cookies made on sight at my local Nugget store. Months back I started to notice that they were never on the baked racks anymore. So finally I asked one of the bakers “why?” Her response was that someone complained that they were allergic to them. I replied “then they don’t have to buy them”. She responded that the person that complained said that if they were baked in their ovens that it might effect the other goods so they decided to completely stop making the peanut butter cookies. So if you liked the Nugget peanut butter cookies you can no longer buy them because one person complained.

  2. medwoman

    I think that both Dunning and David have not sought out what may be the most important statistic in this regard. For me, the number of people who lodge formal complaints is not the real issue. Some people are likely to lodge a formal complaint when impacted, some people never will. That does not mean that they are not adversely impacted. The number that I would like to see is the comparative number of ER visits for respiratory complaints on burn vs no burn days locally. This should not be difficult information to obtain from our local hospitals.

    The other bit of information it would be good to have for those whose primary consideration is not health, but economics, is how many of those visits are being made by those who are uninsured? We are all paying for those visits one way or another.
    So if that number of respiratory related visists is significantly higher, then another way of looking at this is that we are all, as a community, subsidizing the “right” of people to burn wood for their own pleasure.
    Note that we are not talking about those who are using it as their only source of heat.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    “Some people are likely to lodge a formal complaint when impacted, some people never will. That does not mean that they are not adversely impacted. “

    That was one of the points I was trying to make when I believed the number of formal complaints understated the problem.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Rusty: My nephew’s friend is so allergic to peanuts that even the smell can trigger hives that would hospitalize him. It’s a very serious problem.

  5. rusty49

    Sould Davis ban perfumes too?

    Because fragrance is added to so many products, the culprit ruining your day could be in a perfume, food additive, household cleaning agent, cosmetic, deodorant or other product. Some common symptoms of perfume allergies are:
    •Muscle pain
    •Itchy or watery eyes
    •Flulike symptoms
    •Contact dermatitis
    •Anaphylactic shock

  6. David M. Greenwald

    I get migraines from exposure to perfumes, but for the most part I manage to avoid problems with that. Wood smoke is more pervasive and difficult to get away from during the winter months.

    The other problem that you are ignoring is that wood smoke is actually a health hazard to everyone – whether they know it or not and whether they are sensitive enough to get acute effects or not – it’s like exposing yourself to cigarette smoke.

  7. medwoman

    So David, would it be possible to get the ER statistics ?
    That would be the really telling number and might raise the interest of those who are primarily interested in the economics of the issue.

  8. Frankly

    Wood buring bans, and peanut product bans are a tyranny of the minority. I am alergic to wheat and tree pollen. So, can I get a complete citywide ban on wheat and trees please?

  9. davisite2

    “It would also not take effect for “the use of a wood burning device when no gas or electrical service heating system is installed in the structure and the wood burning device is the sole source of interior heat for the structure”

    An addition on my home, put on by the previous owner and meeting the permit requirements of the city at that time, has no heating ducts as there is no crawl space in its”cathedral” ceiling. This attached living area with limited air circulation with the rest of the home cannot be adequately heated without running the central system far beyond what is necessary to heat the rest of the house, adding significantly to the heating bill and making the rest of the house uncomfortably hot. A wood stove in this addition has been the solution. While not technically meeting the “structure” exemption, this kind of situation should be added to the exemption list.

  10. David M. Greenwald

    My guess is Davisite, you could probably apply for an exemption based upon that. However, you may want to email the council prior to Tuesday to have them add it just in case.

  11. medwoman


    How do you feel about traffic laws ? Why should a minority be able
    to tell me that I can’t drive 100 mph down Fifth street if I feel so inclined ? You will probably state that this is a matter of public safety. And I would agree.

    I believe that the presence of unnecessary wood smoke may also be a matter of public safety. I think that statistics that demonstrate actual material harm to the neighbors of those burning wood might prove this one way or the other. Without those numbers, we really don’t know whether or not this is a public health or safety issue. Would you object to actually looking at the data and then making a decision about whether or not this is a prudent measure.
    Or would you rather just make an emotional judgement based on your personal preference ?

  12. roger bockrath

    Medwoman has a good idea when she suggests information about hospital ER visits are a better measure of actual medical events triggered by wood burning during voluntary no burn days. My experience with people filing complaints is that the same few individuals generate all the complaints. As the rhetoric and publicity escalates so do the number of complaints filed by these few individuals. So this extremely small minority ends up driving this whole restrictions process.

    That being said, I am glad to see the council finally committing to some sort of regulations so that those of us who have been putting off purchasing a phase II EPA stove can now do so without the fear of a total ban on wood burning, which would render this significant investment a waste of money.

    I have heated my home with wood for the past 40+ years. I have a special duct installed which moves heat from my wood stove into the cold air return of my aging forced air heater so that it is distributed to my entire house. This heating meathod obviates the use of ancient sequestered CO2 in the form of natural gas by replacing it with short cycle CO2 in the form of wood that would otherwise end up in the landfill, creating methane gas. Now that I know the city is not going to force me to use natural gas to heat my home I am willing to invest in a replacement Phase II EPA wood burning stove.

    We are fortunate to live in an area where winter air circulation dilutes wood smoke on all but a very few days. We are also fortunate to have an unlimited supply of hard woods to burn, which emit much less 2.5 particulate than pine, which is burned by the vast majority of folks who live in areas where wood smoke is a legitimate problem.

  13. alanpryor

    To: Davisite2 re: “While not technically meeting the “structure” exemption, this kind of situation should be added to the exemption list”

    A far cheaper and cleaner solution than installing a $3,000+ EPA Phase II stove would be to use a small oil-filled electric space heater. They are thermostatically controlled, have a much smaller footprint in the room and are easily moved, provide even ambient heat to a small room, cost $50 – $100 to buy, operate on pennies a day worth of electricity, and cause no near neighbor pollution as do EPA Phase II stoves

    To: Roger Bockworth re: Buying a new EPA Phase II stove

    I would suggest waiting until the new EPA Phase III stove regulations are promulgated. They are expected sometime early next year and will probably mandate 2 g PM2.5 emissions/hour instead of 7.5 g/hr emissions which are the current standard.

  14. alanpryor

    To Roger Bockrath re: “We are also fortunate to have an unlimited supply of hard woods to burn, which emit much less 2.5 particulate than pine, which is burned by the vast majority of folks who live in areas where wood smoke is a legitimate problem”

    Sorry to mispell you name in my previous post. According the the Davis Wood Smoke Scientific Advisory Committee made up of esteemed atmospheric scientists and respiratory toxicologists from UCD, wood smoke IS a serious and legitimate problem in Davis. And it is primarily due to people who try to space heat with wood all during the winter – even using EPA Phase II stoves

  15. rusty49

    Part of Dunning’s story that wasn’t told:

    “Citing official EPA emission rates, Tom Cahill, one of Davis’ renowned air quality experts, notes “Open fireplaces are about twice as bad as wood stoves per kg of wood burned, but the amount of wood burned and the duration of burning is 20 times higher for wood stoves than fireplaces.”

    In other words, people with wood stoves tend to run them day in and day out for long periods of time, while most folks with open hearth fireplaces have a handful of short-duration fires for “aesthetic” reasons on special winter occasions. So who’s putting more smoke into the winter air here?

    Even more telling, Cahill adds that “models used in a recent City of Davis study show the local ground level impact is enhanced for wood stoves because its cooler smoke tends to hang closer to the ground, compared to the generally hotter and more buoyant smoke from an open hearth fireplace.”

    Clearly, if the goal of the ordinance is to keep smoke out of the air we breathe, it ought to first and foremost go after those who put a steady stream of smoke into the atmosphere on a regular basis, and leave alone those who only occasionally use an open hearth fireplace.

    The Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District, while noting that “The air quality in Davis currently meets federal standards,” points out that wood burning can lead to “nearest neighbor” complaints. Speaking of the exemption for wood stoves, the District warns that “these exemptions could potentially cause ‘nearest neighbor’ type impacts.” Furthermore, the District adds, “It should be noted that it is not known if the majority of ‘nearest neighbor’ complaints are generated by certified or uncertified” burning devices. “Allowing the operation of these devices could still result in ‘nearest neighbor’ complaints and might not achieve the ultimate policy goal.”

  16. alanpryor

    Excessively high wood smoke concentrations are clearly more pronounced by open hearth fireplaces – albeit for a shorter duration. EPA Phase II wood stoves also produce nearest neighbor impacts but they are generally at a lower concentration but a longer duration. Both contibute to nearest neighbor problems according to the Wood Smoke Scientific Advisory Committee.

  17. medwoman

    [quote]Clearly, if the goal of the ordinance is to keep smoke out of the air we breathe, it ought to first and foremost go after those who put a steady stream of smoke into the atmosphere on a regular basis, and leave alone those who only occasionally use an open hearth fireplace.

    I fully agree with the first clause of this statement and disagree with the second clause. Prioritizing those who create the greatest amount of pollution does not mean that we should not attempt to minimize the impact of those who are occasional users on the worst quality air days.

    Take the example of a “spare the air day”. On these days, all drivers should avoid driving if possible, not just those who commute every day.

  18. David M. Greenwald

    The reason I omitted Dunning’s comment from Cahill is I could not locate it to read it within context and I had no basis to evaluate it.

    Based on Alan’s comment, it seems to suggest there is no good reason to exempt EPA Phase II wood stoves on no burn days.

  19. Ryan Kelly

    Can someone clearly list the days that wood stoves can be used without someone reporting? Should we hurry to upgrade the model of our stove before certain date when they are banned?

  20. SouthofDavis

    David writes:

    > Jeff: You’re incorrect. It’s not a ban,
    > it’s restriction of days.

    You are both right a ban is to “officially or legally prohibit something” in this case burning on some days.

    American river booze ban gets over one million results in Google and News 10, the Sacramento Bee and Yahoo News all seem to call a “restriction of days” a “ban”.

    I wonder if David would call it a “ban” if the city “restricted bloggers from posting within one month of an election”.

    > And it’s not a minority. It’s a health
    > hazard for everyone.

    Only a small minority cares about banning fires (and nail polish remover, and gasoline and the million other things that are a “health hazard”).

    My great uncle moved to the Sierras after WWII and had a fire in his (old school real log) wood burning stove most days for 70 years before he died at 97. Would he have lived to be 107 without the stove?

  21. SouthofDavis

    medwoman wrote:

    > How do you feel about traffic laws ?
    > Why should a minority be able to tell
    > me that I can’t drive 100 mph down
    > Fifth street if I feel so inclined

    I’m willing to bet that the majority (not minority) of people in Davis don’t want people driving at 100mph down 5th St. (just like the majority are fine if a neighbor has a fire on Christmas eve).

    > I believe that the presence of unnecessary
    > wood smoke may also be a matter of public safety.

    Who gets to decide what is “unnecessary” can I ban nail polish, nail polish remover and cigarettes since I feel they are all “unnecessary” and they all have documented negative health effects so they are a matter of “public safety”?

  22. davisite2

    My experience has been that Davis’ winter daylight temperatures are moderate and, except on rare occasions, do not require my wood stove to supplement my whole house central heating system. The evenings, on the other hand,quite often drop to the 30-40 degree range in the late and early morning hours when most people are sleeping with their windows closed. I would guess that most people who have wood stoves do not burn wood continuously day and night as suggested.

  23. roger bockrath

    If the Davis City council wants to ban (restrict) something that really does contribute massive amounts of particulates and known carcinogens to our air supply they should ban the use of so called” easy light ” barbeque briquetts which are charcoal soaked in kerosene, for use by folks who can’t build a fire (one of the things that separates humans from the less intelligent species). Every time some unknown neighbor lights up their que I have to evacuate my yard and go inside because that partially burned diesel makes my nasal passages close down. As I understand it barbeque lighter fluid is illegal in the Los Angeles air basin.

    It’s funny, I live in East Davis where the experts say the particulate concentrations are highest. Most of my neighbors burn wood and yet I can go outside at night and have no discomfort breathing their wood smoke and mine. Seems to me that wood burning regulations in Davis are a solution in need of a problem.

    Alan, thanks for the tip on the phase III stoves! r.b.

  24. davisite2

    I would also venture to guess that the number of formal complaints that have been registered are multiple complaints by a relatively few impassioned wood-burning ban advocates. The actual number of people filing complaints should be readily available without compromising their identity.

  25. medwoman


    I am fairly sure that you were able determine that I was choosing an extreme example. However, I don’t think that the only criteria should be what the majority or minority desire simply by the numbers. I am unaware of any cases of death related to nail polish or nail polish remover. However, I certainly am aware of deaths from asthma. Likewise, I am aware of deaths from peanut allergies which can be triggered even by minute quantities, such as one might see from cross contamination of products baked on the same rack.

    On one flight a couple of years ago, we were temporarily delayed from departure by a request from the attendants that all peanut containing products be removed from the passenger area due to the presence of a small boy with a known severe reaction. There was no controversy whatsoever as everyone turned over their peanut containing snacks to be removed. Can you imagine how one might feel if they knew that the smoke from their fireplace had triggered a fatal respiratory event in a neighbor child, or how a previous poster might feel if they learned that a child had indeed died after eating a chocolate chip cookie baked in the same oven as his beloved peanut butter cookies.

    I think that absolute numbers only tell part of the story and that severity of possible consequence also should be taken into account. Again, I would like to see actual numbers to support action. It seems to me that some who frequently make accusations of selfishness and lack of consideration of the rights of others are very quick to jump in with their emotional reaction on this issue and show a certain callousness towards making a logical decision based on real information.

  26. Frankly

    [i]Burning anything is bad for the environment.[/i]

    Tell that to the earth’s core.

    Related, I wonder if years from now scientists will blame growing occurance of respiratory problems on a lack of human exposure to particulate matter from wood burning. Sort of the same thing we read today about lower resistance to viral and bacterial infections due to the use of anti-bacterial cleaners and helicopter parents that will not let their kids play in the dirt.

    I can just see the headline: “Scientists Say Eating Dirt and Breathing Smoke is Actually Good for You!”

    I read somewere that 100 years ago the Sacramento valley would often be bathed in a constant haze of smoke from surrounding forest fires. So, if we really want to go back to the pure natural state demanded by the environmental-obsessed, let the people burn some damn wood.

  27. rusty49

    “how a previous poster might feel if they learned that a child had indeed died after eating a chocolate chip cookie baked in the same oven as his beloved peanut butter cookies.”

    Why stop there? All peanut products should be banned everywhere. A jar of peanut butter might fall off the store shelf as a peanut allergic child is walking by. A restaurant might grab the wrong salad dressing and accidently use peanut oil in a salad. In fact, peanuts can turn up in all types of products:
    Some Unexpected Sources of Peanut
    •Sauces such as chili sauce, hot sauce, pesto, gravy, mole sauce, and salad dressing
    •Sweets such as pudding, cookies, and hot chocolate
    •Egg rolls
    •Potato pancakes
    •Pet food
    •Specialty pizzas
    •Asian and Mexican dishes
    •Some vegetarian food products, especially those advertised as meat substitutes
    •Foods that contain extruded, cold-pressed, or expelled peanut oil, which may contain peanut protein
    •Glazes and marinades
    So I think the only solution is the complete ban of all peanuts and peanut farms. After all, we don’t want to be called callous and selfish if one person were to be adversely effected by a peanut product.

  28. Alan Miller

    When I was a kid, I hated people smoking when we went to restaurants. I always wanted a no-smoking section. Now, you can’t even smoke in a restaurant, even in a separate room designated for smokers. I think this is insane and society has gone too far.

    I have been to several council meetings in past years where wood smoke has been brought up. Even the most liberal of the councilmembers were not willing to go there, and dismissed the loud complaints the small number of people who complained.

    Nothing has changed. Wood burning stoves have become cleaner and more efficient. Always, however, a loud minority will beat the drum to the point of regulation. And regulation almost never stops at step 1, like the smoking bans. They take hold, become a government institution, perpetuate themselves, and become more choking than the smoke they were designed to keep from our lungs. The groundwork is already there: the citing of wood smoke as being as harmful as cigarette smoke — even though to get such concentration one would have to shave logs, roll up the trimmings and smoke it.

    There is a societal need for potential for mass harm to be regulated. However, at some point, individuals must look out for themselves.

    Despite repeated past councils not finding the evidence compelling, nothing has changed today with wood burning or weather, except the politics.

    My weather forecast is for a ban on wood burning, followed in coming years by tighter and tighter restrictions, and larger bureaucracy, and steeper fines. This is why people living in tents fear camel noses.

  29. rusty49

    “Well, I guess I got my answer to how at least one individual would feel.”

    Oh well did you? So tell me, should all peanut products be banned because I’m sure there are going to be future deaths associated with peanut products and there exposure to other products?

  30. dlemongello

    The restriction to the few worst days seems so very reasonable to me for such obvious reasons.
    As for thinking we may find out in the future it would be good to breathe smoke vs. virus and bact. and dirt exposure the latter 3 are immune mediated functions that depend on exposure for action, the former is respiratory, very functionally different and partially a filtration system to keep smoke and stuff like it out. Also, a little dirt is actually required for trace nutrients. As for acquiring parasites, dirt is contraindicated, but life is a balance, no doubt about that.

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