- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) Residents of California's agricultural heartland for years have blamed smog on vehicle exhaust from the San Francisco Bay area. But, air regulators are proposing a solution that targets a problem closer to home a ban on traditional wood-burning fireplaces.

Many in the state's Central Valley are incensed.

"With our energy costs going through the roof, you have to keep the house warm with a supplemental fire," said Doug Vagim, 59, a Fresno resident and former state Air Resources Board member who opposes the ban.

Under proposed rules that would take effect next year, most wood-burning fireplaces and stoves would be banned in new homes. Masonry fireplaces would have to be permanently disabled, converted to natural gas or upgraded to expensive soot-containing models before homes could be sold.

Also, on bad air days during the winter, many central Californians would be prohibited from lighting existing wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in a concerted effort to get the smoggy valley to comply with the Clean Air Act.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District's plan, drafted under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, provoked angry reactions at a series of public hearings.

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

But state officials said they have few alternatives.

The valley consistently has failed to meet the federal standard for small-particle pollution, and burning wood accounts for 30 percent of the problem, releasing particles one-seventh the size of the width of a human hair that can lodge in lungs, triggering headaches, allergies and asthma.

The district, which covers 23,000 square miles from Lodi to Bakersfield, is expected to approve the proposal by April. About 500,000 homes have stoves or fireplaces subject to the ban.

"The lifestyles of the folks in this valley don't have to be impacted by a Nazi-type era upon us to keeping us from burning in our homes," Mr. Vagim said.

Under the proposal, air regulators would notify homeowners through the news media, a Web site or a hot line to stop burning on bad air days, which could amount to 20 days each winter.

The district may set up a phone line to report any illegal burnings, and violators could be fined.

The proposed rule would exclude homes that rely solely on wood for heat, houses above 3,000 feet and buildings where no natural gas or propane service is available. Gas-burning devices also are exempt.

Meeting the new requirements could be costly for homeowners. Gas stoves can cost from $1,500 to $3,000, not including installation, and converting traditional brick fireplaces to natural gas can cost thousands of dollars. The pollution-controlling inserts can cost between $2,200 and $3,400.

Denver imposed a similar ban on non-federally certified fireplaces or wood stoves and is one of several cities with a no-burn rule in the winter. Initially, air officials there found it difficult for homeowners to stop sparking fires on chilly nights, but compliance increased as the city began issuing fines of up to $300.

Many bought gas stoves and realized how convenient they are, said Christopher Dann, a Colorado Air Pollution Control Division spokesman.

"Anytime they want, they can have a fire," he said.

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