For better breathing

Local agency to offer program to swap out polluting heating units following a string of air-quality alerts

Jason Mandly, associate air quality planner, says Butte County soon should be off a federal EPA list of areas exceeding standards for fine particulates.

Jason Mandly, associate air quality planner, says Butte County soon should be off a federal EPA list of areas exceeding standards for fine particulates.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

In the 13 years Julie Howard has worked in respiratory therapy at Paradise’s hospital, she’s treated a number of patients suffering from the effects of exposure to wood smoke.

The greatest number, most dramatically, have come after wildfires, such as the Humboldt Fire in June 2008 that burned homes and trees at the lower limit of town. A smaller wave came this fall after the Oct. 10 Honey Fire, which rose from Butte Creek Canyon past Honey Run Road up to the Skyway, below town limits.

With less fanfare, Howard also cares for people who inhale wood smoke in lighter amounts over longer periods of time. They live with wood stoves. Often low-income workers or fixed-income pensioners, they rely on old-fashioned flame combustion to heat their homes.

Older stoves, like an open fireplace, can let microscopic particles released by burning escape into the room. Children, seniors and anyone with asthma or other respiratory conditions such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are particularly sensitive to lung irritation by fine particulates. Those smaller than 10 microns are considered unhealthful, Howard explained; wood smoke contains particles on the order of 2.5 microns.

Smoke emitted through chimneys spews the same pollutants, of course, so inefficient stoves also pose risks for neighbors.

Howard, RT-COPD case manager at Adventist Health Feather River, inquires about exposure to wood smoke as part of her routine questioning. She advises patients to do all they can to minimize personal contact: use electric heat as much as possible, stay away from the stove, try to have someone else place wood on the fire.

Beyond these measures, she continued, “I don’t know how to combat that in the hospital.”

What do you do about people who have low income and for their source of heat, because they don’t want to have a high PG&E bill, they’re going to use the wood-burning stove?

“How do you fight finances?”

Fortunately, help is on the way.

The Butte County Air Quality Management District just approved a new program for replacing wood stoves. Following sign-off from its board of directors at that panel’s meeting last Thursday (Dec. 14), the district will join a statewide project to fund purchases of higher-efficiency heating units.

County residents will be able to apply for vouchers to offset the cost of a new wood stove, gas stove or electric heater.

The district will offer two tiers of voucher, based on level of financial need. Anyone with an old wood stove will be able to apply for the lower amount, expected to be $1,000. Low-income households, or people living within areas designated as low-income communities, will be able to apply for the higher amount, around $3,500—designed to cover not only the device but also installation and permitting costs.

The total amount available and the exact time frame depends on state-level agencies completing their organizational work. Jason Mandly, associate air quality planner for the Butte County district, said he anticipates the program to start early next year.

“It’s beneficial because it’s a semipermanent change,” Mandly said. “It’s a district rule that when you put in a new stove in a new building, it has to be an EPA-certified stove—so, once you take out an old one and put in an EPA-certified one, you can’t backslide.

Older stoves, like an open fireplace, can let microscopic particles released by burning escape into the room.

“The more wood stoves that are switched out is going to be a cumulative benefit down the road.”

County residents previously got help replacing wood stoves. The air quality district managed two programs between 2005 and 2015, plus applied civil penalty funds to new stoves, resulting in 739 replacements.

In the most recent program (2013-15), the air quality district issued 250 vouchers. Demand exceeded supply.

“With the rules that were set back then, for that program, we only had a limited number of low-income vouchers that we could issue,” Mandly said. “We certainly had the potential to help out a lot more. What’s different from last time is we’ll have more funds available for low-income households, which is good.”

Air quality metrics bear out the impact. Mandly said stove replacements—combined with public response to no-burn notices, called Check Before You Light advisories—have contributed to a downward trend in microparticle numbers. In fact, Butte County should come off a list compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of areas that exceed federal standards for particle emissions.

The federal standard for PM2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter over 24 hours. Between 2001 and 2009, Butte County figures never dipped below 45, approaching 70 in 2008, and in 2009 the EPA declared most of the county a “nonattainment area.” That zone includes Chico, Paradise, Oroville and Gridley; only the northern and eastern tips are excluded.

The level dropped below 35 in 2011, though, and below 30 in 2014. Last year’s measurement was 26.

The county district submitted documentation to the California Air Resources Board last month for approval and now is headed to the EPA. Upon approval, the EPA would remove Butte County’s nonattainment designation.

“Our air quality is improving; now we’re telling the EPA that it’s improving,” Mandly said. “It’s a trend downward [in PM2.5 levels]; however, it’s not a straight-line trend, it’s a bumpy trend. There are still situations where we’re impacted by wood smoke.”

Already this season, the district has issued five no-burn notices compared with three all last season. (See infobox.) Those advisories are mandatory for Chico residents by city ordinance but voluntary elsewhere. In conditions that have marked this December—chilly nights, little wind, no rain—valley communities in particular become susceptible to smoke layers.

“The only silver lining is that a lot of these values that put us over that standard [of unhealthful air] happen late at night when stove use is at its peak,” Mandly said. “Obviously there are some folks who are out late at night or early in the morning who are impacted, but values tend to be a lot lower during the day.”