In Quincy, going into the forest to collect firewood is a time-honored ritual, usually involving a pickup, a chain saw and a six-pack of beer. A permit to cut wood in the National Forest costs only $5, and some people store as much as two years' worth of wood so they can weather any cold spell.
Around Quincy, winter temperatures can dip well below freezing. Virginia Bresciani, who moved here 70 years ago at the age of 3, has kept warm with wood all her life. She is a staunch defender of burning wood because it is the only economical way to heat the house in winter--and she thinks people who don't like it should try breathing smog in Los Angeles 12 months a year.
She blames the smoke problem on people who don't know how to burn properly--they use wood that is not dry enough and damp the fire down so low it does not get sufficient air.
"We've used wood stoves since I was a toddler and we never had a problem," she said. "If the smoke bothers them this much, they shouldn't live up here."
A cattle rancher and insurance agent, she opposes any restrictions on burning, saying: "We've got too much government intervention right now. If you had to listen to the government every day you'd never get anything done."
She dismissed those who worry about the health hazards of wood smoke, saying, "People look for something to holler about."
Wood smoke opponents began focusing on the problem in the late 1980s, when pollution was heightened by the same climatic conditions that produced California's six-year drought. But federal, state and local agencies have been slow to regulate the Stone Age technology of wood fires.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency requires that all new wood stove heaters meet specific emission standards, which can cut particle pollution by 90%. But the agency does not require replacement of the older stoves, which can keep on polluting for decades.
The EPA is also more than three years behind schedule in evaluating whether its safety threshold is adequate for airborne particles 10 microns or smaller--specks so small that more than 10,000 of them could fit on the dot over this \o7 i\f7 .
Last fall, the American Lung Assn. sued the EPA in a bid to force the agency to update its standard of 150 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period. "The evidence is growing that particulate pollution can kill," said association President Alfred Munzer.
California, meanwhile, has set a safety standard for particle pollution three times as strict as the EPA threshold, but it has been left up to local agencies to decide how to reduce wood smoke.
"Let's face it," said George Erdman, an air pollution specialist with the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District. "Air pollution control issues really come down to the individual: The way you heat your home, the way you commute, the way you use cosmetics, the way you light your barbecue."
Places such as Quincy, Truckee, Mammoth Lakes, Cloverdale and Petaluma have moved to curb pollution by requiring that any new wood-burning stove meet EPA standards.
Mammoth Lakes, the most aggressive California town in tackling wood smoke, goes even further, prohibiting burning on winter days when conditions are worst.
In the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley, air quality districts have adopted voluntary programs asking citizens not to burn when the air quality is bad.
But these measures fall short of what some cities outside California are doing.
Reno, for example, not only prohibits burning on bad days but also has banned the installation of any wood-burning appliance--including EPA-approved stoves--in the most polluted parts of the city.
Debate over wood smoke pollution arose in Quincy when school district employee Joyce Scroggs made it an issue in her successful 1989 campaign for Plumas County supervisor.
People from the flatlands were moving to Quincy for its clean mountain air and found instead that they were choking on smoke. With the steadily growing population, even some longtime residents were annoyed by the thick blanket of smoke hanging over their valley on some winter days.
"The history of living in these rural areas is that everyone loves the smell of wood smoke and it's part of the ambience," Scroggs said. "But it became clear it was a real pollution problem."
Local air monitoring showed that at its worst, Quincy's particle pollution was more than double the federal standard and seven times higher than the state standard, she said.
Even without scientific studies, it was obvious to health experts in Quincy that some residents were suffering a variety of illnesses from wood smoke, including bronchitis, asthma and sinusitis.
But the options were limited. At least two-thirds of Quincy's 5,000 inhabitants depend on wood stoves for their heat. "You can't tell people you can't burn a wood stove," Scroggs said. And requiring them to spend $2,000 or so to install new stoves also was out of the question.