Air pollution

Magalia residents: ‘Don’t mess with our heat’

BANKING THE FIRE<br>A standing-room-only crowd of mountain folk crammed into a Paradise Pines meeting room to tell air-quality officials to leave their wood heaters alone.

A standing-room-only crowd of mountain folk crammed into a Paradise Pines meeting room to tell air-quality officials to leave their wood heaters alone.

Photo By Brad Brown

“Banning wood stoves!”

This was the dire warning contained in a flier sent to residents of the mountainous Magalia area above Paradise, and it prompted more than 100 of them to pack a room to overflowing at the Paradise Pines Property Owners Association Village last Thursday (Feb. 21). They were not in a good mood.

Butte County’s Air Quality Management District had called the meeting because, in winter, the county’s air becomes dangerously smoky because of the widespread use of wood heaters and fireplaces, and the district wanted to explain its plans for lessening the pollution.

Many residents of Magalia and the Upper Ridge use wood as their primary source of heat, and they came to the meeting ready to rumble with anyone trying to take away their wood heaters.

When AQMD Director Gale Williams tried to explain that the agency had no intention of banning wood heaters, she was confronted with shouts of “too much regulation!” and “the Constitution doesn’t say anything about air pollution!”

Until now, the AQMD has taken a three-pronged approach to smoke pollution:

• Requiring certified, reduced-emission wood-burning devices in new homes and remodels;

• Notifying the public of voluntary “Don’t Light Tonight” restrictions when local air becomes unhealthful;

• Offering a limited number of rebates of up to $300 for residential conversions to fuel-efficient wood stoves.

Unfortunately, those efforts have had limited effect on local air quality, and state action and looming federal sanctions are forcing the district to do more.

Williams explained that wood smoke contains large amounts of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in size—called PM2.5, for short. Unlike larger particles, which the lungs can expel, these tiny bits of matter become lodged in lung tissue, and over time they produce harmful effects.

To Williams and the others at the AQMD, that’s something experts have known for decades. The news apparently hasn’t reached all of Magalia, however.

One man hollered, “Prove it!” Another echoed him, saying, “Yeah, prove it!” And a third man, who identified himself as a nurse, said, “The premise here is smoke hurts us. I haven’t seen it proved to me. We’ve got cilia in our lungs, and it pulls all the crap out.”

Williams also got some heat when she cited Chico as having some of the worst air in California. The state Environmental Protection Agency, she said, has ranked Chico third on the list of cities with high levels of PM2.5 pollution.

To which a woman declared, “Clean up Chico. Chico is the problem.”

Many others agreed that Chico residents should be made to comply before those living in the hills are asked to sacrifice. “Chico’s got a whole slew of old stoves,” was how one man put it.

He’s right. In an old, unverified survey of the estimated 20,000 wood heaters and fireplaces in the county, Chico has 6,000. How many of those are pre-1991 non-certified heaters is unknown, Williams said in her office the day after the Magalia meeting—"that would be good information to have.”

Ditto for the amount of smoke in Magalia and other mountain communities. There are no monitoring sites up there, Williams said, so the AQMD doesn’t have good data, but “homes [near Magalia] are rarely without a wood-burning device. … Just take a look on a cold night—it’s very smoky.”

The AQMD is currently working with the state Air Resources Board to site a monitor in the Magalia area.

Areas throughout the state have attempted to address the PM2.5 problem in a variety of ways, from requiring “Don’t Light Night” regulations and fining violators to mandating that only cured wood be sold. Another possible regulatory measure would be to limit the number of wood-burning units allowed in the county or to require heater replacement when a house is sold.

Jim Wagoner, AQMD’s air pollution control officer, was at the meeting, as was District 5 county Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, who sits on the 10-member AQMD governing board. The two watched as the diverse community of young and old, professionals and retirees, those who oppose nuclear power and those who pooh-pooh global warming, came together as one to protect their wood heaters.

“What we fear most up here,” Paradise resident Gil Gilbertson said, “is the camel getting his nose under the tent.”

He worries that the AQMD is using a “shotgun” approach. “If we’ve got a problem, isolate the problem where it’s at. … Do a survey to find where these stoves are. But you gotta know where your problem’s coming from.”

Like many residents, Gilbertson, who has lived on the Ridge for more than 20 years, is willing to listen to what the AQMD has to say, if the AQMD listens in return.

“A lot of those [non-certified] stoves,” he said, “are with little old ladies that are living alone; they’re widows. They’ve got $900 income and a wood stove; maybe their friends or the church helps them to bring wood. To scare them by telling them they’re gonna be shut down is not right. So if you can help them get the proper stove to do it, that’s great.”

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues a report due in December, and if the report agrees with California’s EPA that Chico, its vicinity or the entire county is out of compliance with federal law, Wagoner hopes AQMD will have new regulations ready to help clear the air.

The AQMD’s Board of Directors comprises the five county supervisors and appointed representatives from Chico, Paradise, Oroville, Biggs and Gridley. When it meets today (Thursday, Feb. 28) at 10 a.m. in the Chico City Council Chambers, it will hear from Wagoner whether it should take action—with regulations or mandates—or that more study is needed.

At the core of the debate is the fact that burning wood is more than a way to heat up a house; it’s a cultural touchstone. As Gilbertson put it, “We have a lifestyle we love, and we would like to keep it.”

And, as was seen during the New Year’s storm, the heaters can be lifesavers—and not just by providing heat when the power is out.

Terry Rubiolo is a case in point. When the power in her mobile home went out, she used her stove for both heating and cooking. For six long days, that’s how she fed her family of four.

“They’re telling us that our input is not really what’s needed when the change has to come mostly from Chico,” she observed. “But they’re making decisions for everybody.”

One of government’s jobs is to make sure the air is clean, agoner stated. “I’m a native of Northern California, my wife is a Chico native, I care about this area, I care about the jobs here, I care about the natural resources. … That means our air. Research shows that the really fine stuff [PM2.5] goes down in your lungs and won’t come out. It has the highest mortality rate of all pollutants.”

Whether the conflict is between the valley and the foothills, the “burners” and the “breathers,” or government and the individual, the message the folks at the Paradise Pines AQMD meeting wanted to send was clear: Valley residents need to take responsibility for their role in making Chico’s air some of the worst in the state and “clean up their house” before making changes in the lives of those in the foothills who rely on their wood heaters for survival.