Wood-burning Fireplaces May Be Banned in California

Published February 1, 2003

For more than a million California residents, December 24, 2002 may have been the last Christmas Eve during which they could cozy up to a fire and share a little holiday spirit. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has proposed making wood-burning stoves and fireplaces illegal in the Central Valley.

According to the District’s proposal, it will be illegal for Central Valley residents to build a home with wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. Moreover, Central Valley residents will be required to disable permanently their existing masonry fireplaces, convert their fireplaces to natural gas, or install expensive soot-catching devices. Even the few homeowners who can secure an exemption to the new law may still be forbidden from lighting fires on designated high-pollution days.

The District’s plan, expected to be approved this Spring, will affect roughly 500,000 homes and more than a million residents in the Central Valley. Retrofitting existing fireplaces or buying new natural gas fireplaces will cost homeowners thousands of dollars per fireplace.

Ironically, according to the nonprofit California Hearths and Homes, many homeowners opted to build wood-burning fireplaces when former President Jimmy Carter urged Americans to turn down the thermostat and reduce their consumption of fossil fuels. Now, after spending the money to reduce their fossil fuel reliance, fireplace owners are being blamed for pollution and made to spend still more money to comply with dictates from the same anti-energy activist groups that induced them to install fireplaces in the first place.

About 70 percent of the Central Valley’s smog is attributable to sources other than fireplaces. Many of those sources are located outside the valley, in the San Francisco Bay area. San Francisco-area activists are among those leading the call for fireplace bans in the Central Valley.

Kevin Hall of the Sierra Club lamented the law had not been passed earlier. “The air board has never really had the political backbone to pass some of the most needed regulations,” he said.

“I have a problem with you telling me I can’t light my fireplace,” responded Bakersfield resident Pat White. “You’re telling me what I can and can’t do in my home. That’s not fair.”

The proposal is especially painful for homeowners who installed a fireplace to help save money on winter energy costs. “I know we are all attracted to the ambiance, but I believe for most of us, it’s a necessity,” said Dawn Keeton, a Central Valley resident and owner of a wood-burning stove business.

The new proposal comes at an especially bad time for California residents. Energy costs have spiked in recent years due to state officials’ mismanagement of the power grid and mandatory reliance on expensive alternative energy sources, such as wind power.

“With our energy costs going through the roof, you have to keep the house warm with a supplemental fire,” said Fresno resident and former California Air Resources Board member Doug Vagim. “The lifestyles of the folks in this valley don’t have to be impacted by a Nazi-type era keeping us from burning in our homes.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

on the proposed fireplace ban, visit the Web site of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District at http://www.valleyair.org/.