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Fresno, Madera, Kern Residents Likely To See Fewer Burn Days This Winter

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District
As part of its "Check Before You Burn" program, the San Joaquin Valley Air District determines each day whether burning is allowed (but discouraged), allowed only for registered clean-air devices, or prohibited for all wood-burning devices.

Tuesday night’s storm may have cleaned up the air for much of the Valley and foothills, but winter is still the season the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District limits wood burning. New changes this year to its “Check Before You Burn” program could bring more no-burn days to Fresno, Madera and Kern Counties.

The air district has tightened its standards for when it prohibits fires, for both typical wood-burning fireplaces and even cleaner-burning devices registered with the air district. Air officials have identified Fresno, Madera and Kern as air pollution “hot spots” requiring more restrictions than other areas.

So what will that mean for residents? It’s impossible to predict with certainty, but in Fresno County for example, if the air quality were on a par with last year, Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer Morgan Lambert estimates “we’d be looking at somewhere around 10 to 15 additional ‘no burn unless registered’ days, and another 15-20 or so ‘no burning for all’ days.”

Among other changes, the air district is also introducing more incentives to upgrade wood-burning fireplaces to cleaner ones, as well as stricter requirements for selling houses with fireplaces. “The idea here is to start limiting, or further limit, the ability to install new wood-burning fireplaces and wood-burning heaters in residential properties,” Lambert says, “and continue to transition people away from those into natural gas, electric, other cleaner alternatives.”

The target is particulate matter, the Valley’s wintertime air pollution scourge that’s emitted by fuel burning, vehicle emissions and industrial processes and that can get trapped low to the ground by cold air in the atmosphere. Long-term exposure to a tiny form of particulate matter, known as PM2.5, has been associated with respiratory flare-ups, negative birth outcomes, and cardiovascular issues.

Central Valley Air Quality Coalition Executive Director Genevieve Gale generally applauds the updates to this year’s no-burn program. “The changes are incredibly significant,” she says, “and if properly implemented and enforced, could lead to really great benefits in air quality, especially in Madera and Fresno and Kern Counties.”

However, Gale says, those benefits rely on full compliance from Valley residents, something she worries could be lacking without better communication from the air district. So far, air officials have discussed the changes in board meetings and some other public meetings, but they’re still in the process of creating easily distributable materials like brochures and flyers. “They should have started months and months and months ago,” Gale says. “We’ve been asking the air district to roll out a campaign for years now, truthfully.”

Each day’s burn status can be found on the air district’s website, through the Valley Air smartphone and tablet app, and through various local media including FM89’s hourly weather reports.

A first-time violation of a no-burn day carries a $100 fine or a $50 fine combined with a short remedial class. The Check Before You Burn season ends March 1.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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