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Spare The Air Alerts: Do People Really Get Caught?

Air quality officials say they issue an average of more than 200 citations on every day there is an alert.

Burning fireplaces is strictly forbidden on Spare the Air days. (Photo: Patch Archive)
Burning fireplaces is strictly forbidden on Spare the Air days. (Photo: Patch Archive)
By David Mills

Think you won't get caught if you light up your fireplace on a Spare the Air day?

Air quality officials say... think again.

Tom Flannigan, a public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said the agency issues more than 200 citations on every day there is an alert issued.

First-time violators are given the option of taking a wood smoke awareness class or paying a $100 fine. Second violations result in a $500 fine and the penalties rise with each violation after that.

Last season, there were 10 Winter Spare the Air Day alerts. On those days, about 2,300 complaints were verified, and citations were issued for most of them.

In 2011, there were 15 Spare the Air days and more than 3,800 citations issued.

So far this winter, there have been 22 of the wood burning prohibitions ordered. 

Flannigan said there is no reason to suspect the average number of citations is any lower.

"Yes, you can get caught," said Flannigan.

Flannigan said the No. 1 way by far the agency catches violators is from complaints filed by nearby residents.

A resident who is complained about is mailed an information packet about air pollution and Spare the Air days.

The air quality district has 60 inspectors who follow up on the complaints.

On each Spare the Air Day, they take the addresses of the complaints from the previous alert day and drive by those homes.

If smoke from a chimney, barbecue, fire pit or other area is seen, the homeowner is mailed a citation.

If an inspector happens to see another house violating the wood burning ban along their route, that residence will also be mailed a citation.

The Spare the Air program began in 2008. Flannigan said the agency receives more complaints every year because more people are obeying the wood burning prohibition and don't like it when a neighbor doesn't.

"The people who are violating tend to stand out a little more now," he said.

Flannigan said the Bay Area's unusual weather in December has caused the district to issue a large number of Spare the Air alerts.

He said there is usually rain or wind on most December days. December 2013 turned out to be the driest on record since the mid 1900s.

"These are unique circumstances," he said.


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