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Hearth healthy

The wood-burning fireplace is taking a back seat to gas as pressure mounts for cleaner-air standards.

September 23, 2007|Dawn Bonker | Special to The Times

IN the model home dubbed "The Pioneer," a rambling house tucked into a Corona subdivision springing up among the last dairy farms of Riverside County, is a fireplace unlike anything the early settlers ever gathered around on a chilly night.

Sleek glass doors front a metal insert that holds ceramic "logs." Built-in gas jets stand ready to send up flickering flames. And, in the most dramatic departure from tradition, a deep transom display shelf and window span the area where a chimney normally would be.

For regional air-quality officials, it's one example of what they may allow in newly built homes and in permanently installed patio versions as part of a stepped-up effort for cleaner air. But to new-home buyer Frances Macias of Chino Hills, the trend away from wood-burning fireplaces is a slightly sad fact of modern life.

"I like the smell of natural wood fires," said Macias, while browsing the John Laing Homes model one recent weekend. "Oh, I guess they have their reasons from a health standpoint. But it's too bad."

Health and air pollution were exactly what the South Coast Air Quality Management District had in mind early this summer when the agency proposed regulations that would have forced no-burn days on the region's smoggiest areas and put wood-burning-fireplace restrictions on remodels and new homes.

After the plan sparked a public outcry, officials last month backed off from any rules that would affect existing homes -- at least for now. A subcommittee is studying options including incentive programs that would cough up cash or utility rebates for homeowners who scrap old wood-burning stoves or modify traditional hearths to include permanent gas fixtures.

The fireplace rules are a small part of a comprehensive plan that tackles all of the region's sources of air pollution -- from restaurant charbroilers to automobiles -- in an aggressive effort to meet a Federal Clean Air Act deadline set for 2014. To help meet that goal, more restrictive rules will likely be imposed on new home construction, AQMD officials said.

But the district is not expecting the new-construction restrictions to be hugely controversial, said Laki Tisopulos, assistant deputy executive officer for planning rule development and area sources.

Indeed, say developers in the South Coast AQMD, whose jurisdiction includes all of Orange and most of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the proposals largely reflect what homeowners already prefer and what other California air districts have adopted. A fireplace is an amenity desired by 90% of consumers, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders. Whether that fireplace is gas or wood-burning is less of an issue, developers say.

What's in that smoke

"The idea of wood-burning fireplaces tends to be a little more romantic in nature than reality," said Les Thomas, president of Shea Homes California.

Most homeowners don't have the inclination to buy and store wood and sweep up ashes, said Colleen Dyck, vice president of sales and marketing for John Laing Homes, which switched to gas-fireplace inserts in almost all of its homes about eight years ago.

Wood-burning fireplaces "are messy, and they make your carpets smell," Dyck added. And there's the spider thing.

"I grew up in Upland, and we kept our wood outside, and I was panicked about having to go out there and bring logs in," Dyck said. "You know, it's California and there are black widows out there."

But it's poisonous air that makes AQMD officials cringe. Wood smoke contains gases and tiny particulates that contribute to poor air quality and are small enough to lodge in lungs and cause a host of respiratory ailments, from asthma to lung cancer, air regulators say.

The fireplace rules were a relatively small part of the massive plan, but they roused considerable attention.

"Anywhere we go to present our plan, people zoom in and we hear, 'Stay away from my fireplace!' or 'Stop the insanity and stop burning wood!' " the AQMD's Tisopulos said. "There's nobody in the middle. It's one extreme or the other."

Kurt Lorig was among those who wanted the district to reconsider the wood-burning rules. Lorig owns Anaheim Patio & Fire and has sold hearth supplies for 51 years. Most people opt for the convenience and ever-increasing variety of gas-fireplace logs available for new and older homes, he said. But why deny a few, maybe 5% of his customers, who love the homey crackle of embers and aroma of wood smoke? The health concerns of wood smoke are overblown, he said, when compared to the pollution spewed out daily on the region's roads and highways.

"What about all the cars?" Lorig asked, pointing toward the busy Santa Ana Freeway near his Irvine store.

Most of the comprehensive plan does address vehicle and industrial sources of air pollution. But the region has just seven years to meet a federal deadline for healthier air, so officials say no source of pollution is too small to chase.

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