Light a fire on a bad air day and you may be going to smoke school -- or pay a $100 fine if you refuse.

The Bay Area's air pollution district is getting tougher this year on scofflaws, violators of its four-year-old rule banning home or business owners from burning wood fires in chimneys and stoves during Spare the Air alerts.

First-time violators used to get off with a written warning, but they won't anymore.

Effective Nov. 1, when the cold weather Spare the Air season begins, first-time offenders will be required to take a class online or read written materials on the health hazards of wood smoke. Afterward, they must pass a 10-question quiz.

Play hooky and blow off the requirement, and a wood burner will be fined $100 by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

"We think people have had enough time to become familiar with our rule as we're going into its fifth season," said Kristine Roselius, air district spokeswoman. "The point is about educating people to protect public health from smoke on the few days a year when meteorological conditions lead us to forecast violations of federal health standards for air quality."

Some critics say the smoke rule is petty and heavy-handed.

The air district, however, points to years of medical research finding that fine soot particles can make it difficult for healthy people to breath, aggravate asthma problems, and lead to premature deaths among those with lung and heart ailments

In another change this year, the air district is raising the fine for second-time burn offenders from $400 to $500.

Penalties for third and subsequent offenses remain unchanged. The fine is more than $500, with the exact amount depending on the severity of the smoke.

Last cold season, the Bay Area air district issued 346 written warnings to first-time offenders and 13 tickets to second-time offenders, according to district records. There were 11 Spare the Air days when burning was illegal.

In another change this year, the air district will use more conservative criteria in calling Spare the Area alerts at lower pollution levels.

The change will increase protections for people who live in isolated inland valleys where smoke can build up on cold nights to high local concentrations, Roselius said.

"It's not about the weather changing," she said. "We want to protect everyone in the region, including those exposed to high pollution buildups in very localized areas."

Some valleys in Marin, Napa, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties are vulnerable to high smoke levels.

Alerts are issued on nights when cold, stale air traps smoke near the ground.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff

how smoke rule works

If you burn a wood fire in your home or business fireplace or stove during a 24-hour Spare the Air alert, you can be cited by the Bay Area Air Quality Management for violation of its smoke rule.
An air district inspector must personally observe the smoke to write up a violation notice.
Inspectors' patrol routes are based on priorities that consider areas with a history of high smoke concentrations or complaints about illegal burning.
Inspectors don't give people violation notices. The air district mails them to violators.
First-time violators will be given the option of studying for and passing a smoke education test, or paying a $100 fine.

 Second-time offenders can be fined $500. Third-time offenders are fined more, with the penalty based on the severity of the smoke offense.
Exemptions from the burn rule are given for people who live in areas without natural gas service and who do not have a permanent heating devices such as a propane heater.
To find out when Spare the Air alerts are issued, Bay Area residents can sign up for automatic email notifications by visiting www.sparetheair.org and scrolling to the bottom of the page.
To report a violator or to find out if an alert is in effect, call 1-877-4NO-BURN, visit www.sparetheair.org or www.baaqmd.gov, or listen to media alerts.
The air district regulates pollutions in seven Bay Area counties, but southern parts of Solano and Sonoma counties.