California air quality regulators propose to ban on wood-burning fireplaces

A cozy fire can make for a romantic evening. It can also make you sick.

So to help reduce harmful pollution and meet federal emissions standards, air quality regulators have proposed a ban on wood-burning fireplaces in all new homes in cities across Southern California. They also seek to ban wood-fueled blazes in all fireplaces on winter days when pollution spikes.

The fireplace rules are part of a plan that also would seek to reduce soot from diesel engines and ozone smog. The South Coast Air Quality Management District's board is expected to vote on the proposal Friday.

"This plan addresses new federal health standards with a very aggressive and fast-tracked pollution control program," said AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein. "We must aim high to tackle one of the most serious public health threats in our region."

Air district staffers say a daily reduction of 192 tons of nitrogen oxides, an ingredient in harmful particulate pollution, is needed across the region to meet the Clean Air Act requirements, and that 7 tons of that could come from restrictions on fireplaces.

Regulators say unsafe levels of fine particulate pollution are responsible for 5,400 premature deaths and 2,400 hospitalizations a year in Southern California  leaving no target, including fireplaces, too small.

But critics, including homebuilders and real estate agents, say the regulations could hurt sales.

"A fireplace especially a beautiful fireplace, and what people normally mean by that is a wood-burning fireplace it's the thing people like to have" when they buy a home, said real estate agent Barbara Burner, who works for Century 21 in Thousand Oaks.

Air pollution regulations on fireplaces have been adopted in an estimated 50 countries, air districts of cities across the West, John Crouch of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, told the Los Angeles Times.

There are an estimated 1.9 million homes with fireplaces in Southern California out of about 5 million total housing units, regulators said. The proposed ban would affect all new homes in Los Angeles, Orange and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Environmentalist Tim Carmichael, who heads the Coalition for Clean Air, said it is important to take every step to clean the air, but it would be difficult to enforce any sort of ban.