According to the calendar, fall begins in late September, but we all know that November tends to mark the true start of fall in the San Joaquin Valley.
It's also the start of a four-month "check before you burn" season in the valley, when the valley air district restricts use of wood-burning fireplaces and stoves because air quality is poor due to high counts of small particulates. In the first 19 days of this month, Merced and Madera counties haven't had a no-burn day. Stanislaus County has had three and San Joaquin County had only one.
The fireplace restrictions have been around for many years, but every year, some residents gripe about them. Others suggest that there should be more days in which burning is prohibited because they are bothered by the smoke that drifts through their neighborhoods. The particulates can be irritating for some people. For others with asthma and other breathing illnesses they can have lethal consequences.
People who don't have access to natural gas service and rely entirely on wood-burning stoves to keep warm qualify for an exemption. There aren't a lot of those people in the valley, especially in the urban areas. And in newer homes, most of the fireplaces are gas, so they are not subject to burn prohibitions.
Are the current restrictions so tough as to be onerous?
We don't think so when the trade-off is improving air quality for everyone. Also, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District makes it easy for people to check on whether it is a "burn cleanly" or a "wood burning prohibited" day. The information is available on the district Web site, www.valleyair.org, and people can sign up for an e-mail alert. It is also available on a toll-free phone line, (800) 766-4463.
The air district is looking at tighter rules for the future and those could severely limit wood burning during the winter. The tighter restrictions are one of several proposals from the valley air district to meet federal air quality standards; a vote could be taken next month, though the tighter restrictions wouldn't take effect until 2014. Information about the proposals is available at www.valleyair.org/Air_ Quality_Plans/ PM25Plans2012.htm.
For the time being, we urge residents to abide by the burn restrictions and to burn cleanly when they do have a fire in the fireplace. That means using clean, seasoned and dry wood, or opting for a manufactured fire log, which provide the same ambience but burns more cleanly.
And we urge people to consider the incentives that the air district is offering for upgrading to fireplace inserts or cleaner-burning pellet or gas stoves. The cash incentives range from $100 to $1,500. Information is available on the Web site.
It's tempting to reminisce about the days when there were no restrictions on fireplace use. Those also were the days when there were far fewer people living in our valley and when we weren't as aware of the health effects of bad air. The particulates from burning in an open fireplace contribute to a valleywide problem, but their impact is greatest on the people who live in that house or nearby. That should be enough to encourage valley residents to check before you burn.