A lot of smoky hot air

AQMD’s new efforts in Chico are too wishy-washy

Now that fall is turning into winter, people are starting to fire up their wood heaters and light blazes in their hearths. That’s a nice image: Wood is an inexpensive, renewable fuel, and few things are more pleasant on a cold night than flaming logs in the family fireplace.

But burning wood comes at a cost. The smoke it releases—and especially the fine-particle pollution in that smoke—is dangerous for everyone who breathes, most of all asthma sufferers. The problem is especially acute in Chico, thanks to its large number of wood heaters and fireplaces and frequent wintertime inversions that trap the smoke near the ground.

The Butte County Air Quality Management District is trying to do something to improve Chico’s wintertime air, but its most recent measures—adopted Oct. 23 and implemented beginning Nov. 1 just in the Chico area—are anything but reassuring.

One will increase education outreach, while the other has changed the name of the voluntary no-burn day from “Don’t Light Tonight” to “Check Before You Light.” Best we can tell, that’s all it is—a name change. Sort of like rearranging the deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

The idea is to determine whether the new voluntary program works. If it doesn’t, Chico will go to mandatory no-burn days beginning in 2009. On inversion days, Chicoans who have another source of heat would be asked not to light a fire.

But why wait?

A survey by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District showed that a switch from voluntary to mandatory no-burn days would increase compliance from 18 percent to 80 percent. The force of law, it seems, is a much better hammer than a simple request.

People are dying because of bad air. The state Air Resources Board estimates that each year between 14,000 and 24,000 people die prematurely in California because of particulate pollution—several times as many as die in traffic accidents. It’s a life-and-death problem that merits firm action.