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NO SMOKING PLEASE - Air Quality & Smoke Impacts in Northern Sonoma County


Air Quality & Smoke Impacts in Northern Sonoma County

By Barbara Lee

Air quality is measured against standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board for specific pollutants.  When air quality doesn’t meet a standard, the local air district has to develop a plan of regulations that will improve air quality until it does meet the standard.  Air quality regulations vary from district to district because they reflect local air quality needs.

Sonoma County spans two air regions. The southern portion of the County is managed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which includes eight other Counties around the San Francisco Bay. The Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District manages the remainder of the county. Most of Sonoma County’s cities are included in the Bay Area District.

Only the cities of Healdsburg and Cloverdale are in the Northern Sonoma District, which also includes the towns along the lower Russian River and the entire Sonoma Coast.  Anyone interested in more information about the boundary line can view a map of the County showing both air districts at:

The most significant pollutants in Sonoma County are ozone (a component of smog), and particle pollution (which we refer to as particulate matter, or PM).  We know this by measuring pollutants in the air.  The Bay Area District operates a monitoring station on 5th Street in Santa Rosa.  The air quality in the Bay Area does not meet the federal or state standards for ozone or particulate matter.  The Northern Sonoma District operates air monitoring stations in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, and Guerneville.  Air quality in Northern Sonoma meets all of the federal and state standards – along with Lake County, it is the cleanest air in California!

Most people understand that smog is harmful, but many people don’t know what particulate matter is or why we’re concerned about it.  Particles in the air come from a variety sources and have varying chemical make-ups. The size of a particle determines how far past our bodies’ defenses it can penetrate. We are most concerned about particles small enough to penetrate deep into our lungs, specifically known as inhalable and fine particles.

Inhalable particles are generally smaller than 10 microns in diameter (often called PM10) and come mostly from fine dust and combustion. By comparison, the average human hair is about 70 microns in diameter and fine grains of beach sand are about 90 microns. Inhalable particles have been shown to cause or contribute to a long list of adverse health effects, including: increased respiratory symptoms, pneumonia, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; exacerbation of asthma; increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits; increased risk of premature births and infant mortality; and an increase in cancer, cardiovascular, and respiratory deaths, as well as increased total mortality.

Fine particles are a subset of inhalable particles. These are the smaller particles in that group, less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5). These particles penetrate so deeply that they get carried throughout the body where they interfere with cellular processes.Fine particles also tend to be more reactive and are responsible for some of the most significant of the health effects. Fine particles come mostly from combustion, including factories, cars, and fireplaces and woodstoves.

Particle pollution is highest on cold, windless evenings in the winter months, when smoke from fireplaces lingers near the ground.

In recent years, the Bay Area District has adopted smoke management regulations designed to reduce the amount of particulate matter in the air so that it will meet federal and state standards.  Specifically, in Southern Sonoma, the Bay Area District prohibits the use of woodstoves and fireplaces when they forecast particulate matter levels may exceed allowable standards.  Burning on a no-burn day can result in fines that escalate with repeated offenses, although homes where wood burning is the only source of heat can receive an exemption from the rule.  Anyone can sign up to receive no-burn alerts.

The air in the Northern Sonoma District already meets all the air quality standards, including those for particulate matter, so the Northern Sonoma doesn’t have the same smoke management regulations.  The Northern Sonoma District encourages its residents to avoid burning on Bay Area no-burn days, but we don’t prohibit it.  We do regulate the installation of woodstoves and fireplaces, requiring all installations meet low-emission standards.  We also regulate open, outdoor burning and require permits for all types of open burning as well as smoke management plans for larger burns with a potential for significant smoke impacts. 

Some people don’t mind smelling a little smoke. For some people, though, even a little smoke can make breathing difficult, or even cause serious problems that can require medical attention. Keeping smoke out of the air is everyone’s responsibility. Fortunately, it isn’t that hard to do. 

Here are ways you can be a good neighbor and minimize the smoke you put into the air:

If you can, replace your wood-burning device with one that is certified to meet EPA Phase II emission standards.
Contact the District for a list of certified devices, and to find out if incentive funds are available.
A properly installed, correctly used wood-burning appliance should be smoke free. If you see or smell smoke that means you may have a problem.
Stoves, heaters, and fireplaces that use propane or natural gas don’t release any visible smoke, and the exhaust they do release has very low levels of particles.

Avoid burning if you don’t have to, especially on no-burn nights.  Visit to sign up for alerts.

wet - dry - wood comparison• Burn only seasoned wood that has been split 
º Properly seasoned wood has less than 20% moisture content (you can test this with a wood moisture meter that costs as little as $20).  Seasoning takes about 6 months of dry storage for soft woods and 12 months for hard woods.
º Seasoned wood is darker, has cracks in the end grain, and sounds hollow when smacked against another piece of wood.  Once it’s seasoned, keep it dry.
º Properly split wood is 6 inches or less in diameter.
º Start your fire with newspaper and dry kindling, or install a starter that uses natural or propane gas.

• Burn hot and clean.
º Hot fires are more efficient, getting more heat out of every unit of wood burned so they save you money.  The more smoke you see, the more money you are wasting.
º Make sure your fire has enough air – closing down the damper may slow the fire down, but you lose more of the wood up the chimney as smoke, instead of turning it into heat.
º Regularly remove the ashes to allow air to circulate well around the fire.

• Never burn materials that can release toxic compounds into your air.
º Garbage, including cardboard, boxes, coated or colored paper, wrappers, plastics, and foam produce dioxins and other harmful chemicals when they are burned.
º Coated, painted, and pressure treated wood releases arsenic, lead, and heavy metals when it is burned.  Even burning driftwood or glued or laminated wood releases harmful pollutants.  Never cook food over fires with any of these materials.
º Wet, rotted, diseased, or moldy woods can introduce spores or other harmful constituents into your home.

Clean and Efficient heating check list

The Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District is an independent agency created by the California Legislature. It has a Board of Directors that is currently made up of the five Sonoma County Supervisors.  The Air District’s boundaries cover the majority of Supervisorial Districts 4 (represented by Supervisor Mike McGuire), and 5 (represented by Supervisor Efren Carrillo), and a small portion of Supervisorial District 1 (represented by Susan Gorin). Supervisors David Rabbitt (District 2) and Shirlee Zane (District 3) also serve on the Northern Sonoma Air District’s Board of Directors, and Supervisor Zane serves on the Bay Area Air District Board as well.

The Air District is part of the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works and engages actively with County Departments on issues of environmental stewardship and public health protection, which are key goals of the County’s Strategic Plan. Under the strong environmental leadership of its Board, the District supports the County’s initiative to become the Healthiest County by 2020.

The Board of Directors and staff of the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District care deeply about air quality. We have additional information about air quality and health, grant programs, and ways to burn more cleanly. If you would like more information, or have questions or concerns, please contact the District at (707) 433-5911, or at The District office is at 150 Matheson Street in Healdsburg, 95448.  You can reach the Bay Area Air Quality Management District at (415) 749-5000, or


Barbara Lee is the Air Pollution Control Officer of the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District.  She has twenty-four years of experience in air pollution control, including eighteen as the APCO in Northern Sonoma.  She holds a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Your claims that burning wood  for domestic heating is environmentally friendly is debatable and your dismissal of the health impact of residential wood smoke pollution is regrettable 

Recent studies suggest the carbon particles produced from the incomplete burning of wood contributes to the greenhouse effect. And, anyone living next door to a house with a wood burning heater will tell you they are not people friendly. 

Health professionals will advise you  residential wood smoke pollution contains many of the same cancer causing chemicals found in cigarette smoke. They will also tell you exposure to residential wood smoke pollution can lead to the hospitalisation of those with pre-exisitng heart or lung conditions. Those most at risk are the elderly and the very young whose lungs are still developing. This includes those who burn wood for heating. 

In my city the burning of wood for domestic heating accounts for almost 70 per cent of our fine particle air pollution. Cars account for about 10 per-cent. Our local government regularly warns residents wood smoke pollution can be a health risk and actively encourages them to make their homes more energy efficient with financial incentives to transfer to cleaner forms of heating. It has even gone so far as to ban wood heaters in some new residential developments.  

New Zealand has taken a stronger stand and banned wood heaters in some cities. It has also implemented tough emission standards. These actions are based on the mountains of evidence that exposure to residential wood smoke can have a serious impact on your health.

Darryl Johnston 


Wood is a SUSTAINABLE fuel because it comes from trees, which GROW and because firewood is obtained through tree trimming. No forests are destroyed in my state - California - to obtain firewood. 

The combination of it being a sustainable - renewable resource sets it apart from fossil fuels which are not renewable or sustainable. Trees also clean our air and provide oxygen so they fulfill a beneficial purpose as well. 

I did not DISMISS the health impacts. I illustrated the PROPER way to burn wood and encouraged people to purchase EPA Certified wood stoves that burn clean. Correctly burned wood in an EPA stove burns clean. You will not see smoke coming from the chimney.

Our cities also ban wood smoke on clean air days - but most city dwellers do not burn for heat - they have options. Many of us living in the forests burn wood for heat. if we burn it correctly - hot fires with dry wood, our fires burn clean. ~ Vesta