"Don't burn, baby, don't burn."
The valley's fireplace restrictions, among the most stringent in the nation, would become far more strict under rules officially proposed last week.
Some farmers, restaurateurs, road workers and commuters could be affected, and major road projects could lose federal funding if air quality targets aren't met in a few years.
"The San Joaquin Valley faces unique and unprecedented air quality challenges," reads a narrative in the proposal by San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District staff. New rules would help save lives and spare lungs, the report says, bringing the valley in line with federal clean air demands.
A draft has circulated for months, drawing a wide range of comments. Some people urged officials to ban all burning on every day of the year, while others said fireplaces provide cheap warmth to people struggling to make ends meet.
Wood-burning restrictions seem the most controversial of the proposed rules, which will be taken up Dec. 20. If adopted, they could more than double "no burn" days in Merced County, from an average of 26 each winter to 63. A more severe option could kick in under certain circumstances, outlawing fires on 85 of the 120 days from Nov. 1 through the end of February.
No-burn restrictions, based on air-quality forecasts, were introduced in 2003 under Rule 4901, which would be amended as one of numerous ways to curb particulate matter, also known as PM-2.5.
The name reflects the minuscule size of particles from dust and soot -- smaller than 2.5 microns, meaning you could put about 25 bits side by side to reach the width of a human hair. Although microscopic, they harm sensitive lungs, aggravating asthma, causing lung cancer and prematurely killing hundreds of valley residents each year.
It's worse when air stagnates, trapped by the valley's bowl-like features, and is more dangerous than warm-weather ozone.
"Compared to other district rules, curtailing burning under Rule 4901 is the most cost-effective rule for reducing PM-2.5," the proposal reads.
Some people who have invested in cleaner burning devices, such as wood and pellet stoves, say it's unfair they're lumped in with fireplaces. Officials acknowledge that certified wood stoves and pellet stoves can produce as little as 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of a fireplace's typical pollutants, and say they'll consider owners' pleas. But they're making no promises.
Others said the air district should be harsher by extending no-burn months on either end, to October or March. Officials will consider that as well, but scientists say particulate matter danger is much less in those months.
A health assessment says proposed rules could prevent 671 premature deaths, and people throughout the valley might save $102 million a year by not needing medical care, by 2019.
Vehicles, particularly diesel trucks, cause about half of the valley's dangerous wintertime pollution, the report says, but other agencies regulate those sources.
Transportation leaders say failure to comply with federal air quality demands could put in jeopardy $44.8 million needed to improve Highway 99's interchange at Salida's Kiernan Avenue, and $4 million to widen Claribel Road from McHenry Avenue to Oakdale Road.
Modesto Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.