Throwing a few logs on the fire on a nippy evening, or boosting a home's market appeal by advertising its wood-burning fireplace, could go the way of the coal chute and the ice box for many Southern Californians if newly proposed air quality regulations are adopted.
As part of air pollution plans designed to meet federal deadlines, South Coast Air Quality Management District officials have proposed a ban on wood-burning fireplaces in all new homes in Los Angeles, Orange and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
In addition, on winter days when pollution spikes, wood-fueled blazes in all fireplaces would be banned in highly affected areas. That could amount to about 20 days a year, district officials said.
Another measure that would require closing off wood fireplaces or installing $3,600 pollution control devices before a home could be sold had been dropped as of late Thursday, an AQMD spokesman said.
Regulators say that with an estimated 5,400 premature deaths attributable to soot each year in the region, no source is too small to target. Numerous studies have shown that the fine particulate matter in soot sinks deep into the lungs, causing serious health problems. But critics, including homebuilders and real estate agents, say the regulations could hurt sales by robbing homes of one of their most enjoyable features.
Air district staffers say a daily reduction of 192 tons of nitrogen oxides, an ingredient in harmful particulate pollution, is needed across the region to meet the Clean Air Act requirements, and that 7 tons of that could come from restrictions on fireplaces.
Barbara Burner, a Realtor for 25 years, said that with such a small amount of pollution at issue, she doesn't think the restrictions are merited.
"A home is an emotional buy," said Burner, who works for Century 21 in Thousand Oaks and has three wood-burning fireplaces in her own home. "A fireplace -- especially a beautiful fireplace, and what people normally mean by that is a wood-burning fireplace -- it's the thing people like to have."
The fireplace rules are one piece of a plan also designed to reduce soot from diesel engines and ozone smog that AQMD's board will vote on today.
"Our governing board will consider adopting their air quality plan, which includes more than three dozen measures," air district spokesman Sam Atwood said. "One of those measures would be for the first time to have a program that would reduce pollution from residential fireplaces and wood stoves."
The plan also includes truck-only lanes on the 710 and 15 freeways, and electric rail lines from Los Angeles' Westside to Ontario airport and from the ports to Inland Empire warehouses. Reducing paint thinner emissions and gas station and refinery leaks is also part of the host of proposed measures.
If the overall plan is approved, another vote is scheduled for September to finalize the fireplace regulation.
"There aren't any easy rules left in terms of substantially reducing" fine particulate air pollution, said Jane Carney, a Riverside attorney and an AQMD board member. Riverside and other Inland Empire communities would likely be targeted by fire bans during cold winter months.
Carney said there are "pretty obvious adverse impacts of wood smoke on pollution. If you stand close to a wood fire and breathe, you can feel it in your throat and in your lungs."
Carney said that while she would listen to comments from the public and the building industry, attractive alternatives to wood fireplaces are available.
"Let me tell you, the natural gas logs are wonderful," she said.
Carney also said she would consider even tougher measures to clean up fireplace pollution, such as a complete regional wintertime ban on wood fires.
Air pollution regulations on fireplaces have been adopted in an estimated 50 counties, air districts or cities across the West, particularly in colder areas, said John Crouch of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Assn.
Numerous trade groups oppose the fireplace measures. Mark Grey, environmental director for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said the group would especially oppose any ban on wood-burning fireplaces in new homes.
A fireplace is "a popular feature. People want to be able to have a wood fire at certain times of year, and the AQMD did not bring to us any data that would demonstrate that wood smoke emissions are significant," Grey said. "From the statistics that we can see, most
There are an estimated 1.9 million homes with fireplaces in Southern California out of about 5 million total housing units, regulators said.
Environmentalist Tim Carmichael, who heads the Coalition for Clean Air, said that while it was important to take every step possible to clean the region's air -- still the most polluted in the nation -- it would be difficult if not impossible to enforce any sort of ban on wintertime fires.
"At some level we believe these sorts of controls need to be looked at, but ... the big question is, is it enforceable?" Carmichael said. "Could you really get people to stop doing this?"
Atwood, the air district spokesman, said that with about 100 inspectors responsible for pollution sources ranging from oil refineries to gas stations, enforcement would be tough.
But Crouch, of the hearth and patio association, said, "Given how far out of attainment the South Coast is for fine particulates, and the fact that wood burning is not as significant in Southern California as it is in, for instance, in Seattle or Denver or someplace colder, I think they've charted a reasonable regional path here."