Hot Protest Kindled By Wood Burning Ban

  • Chuck Woerner, digging his truck out of three feet of snow last year, says what works for Bakersfield doesn?t work for the mountain when it comes to assumptions about what is needed here to stay warm.

    Chuck Woerner, digging his truck out of three feet of snow last year, says what works for Bakersfield doesn?t work for the mountain when it comes to assumptions about what is needed here to stay warm.

By Patric Hedlund

Steve Yusim of Lake of the Woods is hopping mad and ready to canvas the mountain with petitions.

Brian Bierman of Pinon Pines is setting up a website and has stepped up to help coordinate a protest.

Chuck Woerner of Frazier Park has been calling the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, television stations and newspapers to protest the ban on burning wood in our mountains when Bakersfield is having a bad air day.

No scientific justification for the ban has been presented, the men argue. It makes Woerner angry that bans on Frazier Park’s “1,500 homes in 15 square miles at 5,000 foot elevation within our own microclimate” should be dictated by conditions 50 miles north on the valley floor. The SJVAPCD has more than tripled the number of “burn ban” days it is calling this year, based on air conditions in the San Joaquin Valley.

Previously there was a waiver allowing wood burning by those living in homes at altitudes above 3,500 feet. That waiver was removed in mid-October with almost no advance notice.

Woerner wrote a letter to Supervisor Ray Watson outlining his objections. Watson is the representative for this area on the SJVAPCD board. He voted for eliminating the waiver, on the premise that it could help the district meet state and federal air pollution standards.

Opponents say no air flow study has been presented to justify the board’s notion that mountain wood smoke ever flows into the valley.

Now agency personnel appear to be back-pedalng on their explanation for the new policy. Yusim points to a recent interview in which a SJVAPCD public information officer said the ban will protect mountain residents from wood smoke. But Woerner replies that children and elders enduring cold homes because of the expense of gas heating also poses a major health hazard.

Yusim is furious that the ban came with no warning as winter is approaching, “after people have planned and budgeted all year to buy their wood.” He says he knows an 85-year-old woman who can’t afford to use only gas but is afraid to stay warm with the help of her wood stove. “You need to tell people that the first offense is a $50 fine, but you can get that dismissed by going to a class on clean wood burning,” he said in an interview Wednesday, Dec. 10.

The district points to scientific studies showing that fine particulate matter, called PM 2.5, is among the most harmful of air pollutants. It triggers asthma attacks and lung problems. The tiny particles can pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream, where they can clog arteries. Doctors have documented an increase in deaths from lung diseases, heart attacks and strokes on days when fine particle pollution is high.

Wood smoke contains such particles, it is true, but The San Joaquin Valley Air Initiative, a five-year plan developed by a coalition of business and civic groups in 2003, says that the primary source of the pollution in the San Joaquin Valley is from “mobile sources,” and “while heavy-duty vehicles [diesel trucks] represent a small percentage of the total vehicle population, they generate a significant percentage of the nitrous oxide and PM emissions.” Diesel trucks transporting goods along the Interstate 5 and Highway 99 corridors and agricultural activities in the San Joaquin Valley generate by far the largest quantities of PM 2.5.

Mountain residents such as Linda MacKay of Lebec, an activist for air quality improvements, say it is politically tough to tackle those entrenched economic interests. MacKay is skeptical the local ban will have any impact on improving the valley’s problem. Still SJVAPCD says their burn ban goal is to meet stricter federal clean air standards for particulate matter pollution, which is most severe in the San Joaquin Valley during winter months.

Homes and businesses without natural gas or where wood burning is the sole source of heat are exempt from the wood burning ban. Propane is not considered ‘natural gas’ under this regulation.

Woerner and Yusim have been calling the air board’s district office at (661) 326-6900, “but people need to call Supervisor Watson at (661) 868-3680,” Yusim said, “We need to get him to renew the waiver until they have some proof that this is justified.”

Yusim says he doubts that people in Fresno (where the head office of SJVAPCD is based) understand the rural nature of this region. He says there is a misunderstanding that “just because there is natural gas service in Frazier Park and parts of Lake of the Woods, they say this must be a ‘high density population.’ They’re wrong, but Watson should know better. He cast the deciding vote to eliminate the waiver. He isn’t representing our interests.”

Yusim said he has asked to speak at the December 18 meeting of the air board. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. at 2700 M Street, Suite 275 in Bakersfield (www.valleyair.org). He said he hopes that Chuck Woerner and others will ask to speak too.

Brian Bierman said on Wednesday that by the weekend (December 13) he plans to have a web page established which will have a petition for mountain residents to download, print and circulate in their neighborhoods. [UPDATE: Bierman's new site, "No to No Burn" is now at http://notonoburn.org/ ].

He had not completed the petition language when we interviewed him on Wednesday, but had written something that sounds like a manifesto last week, as a rough draft. Here is an excerpt:

“The almost tyrannical pronouncement by the EPA and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) that the Frazier Mountain Communities are subject to mandated “No-Burn Days” is an unreasonable imposition on residents for the following reasons:

The decision to impose on Frazier Mountain was made without representation. Our community did not get fair warning. SJVAPCD is exacerbating an already difficult situation. Residents budget their heating costs on the ability to burn firewood throughout the cold winter and have already purchased firewood for the season.

In addition, the following also apply: The imposition is determined by data irrelevant to the Frazier Mountain Communities….Data reporting particulate matter is gathered in Bakersfield which is over 40 miles away from our community and at a 3,000 – 4,000 foot elevation difference….”

This is part of the December 12, 2008 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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