Bay Area residents who violate a new ban on burning wood fires on chilly Spare the Air nights could face some of the toughest fines in California — hundreds or even thousands of dollars per violation.

Effective today with the start of the burn season, the new Bay Area rule bars people from burning wood fires in fireplaces and wood stoves on bad air nights. The rule also bars excessive smoke from indoors fires any time of year.

Offenders — to be identified largely by neighbors phoning in complaints — will get written warnings for the first offense. But subsequent violations can be punished with fines of hundreds or even thousands of dollars, said managers at the nine-county Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Fines in the Bay Area are not fixed, unlike in Sacramento, Fresno, Stockton and Los Angeles where the initial penalty is $50 or attendance at a smoke education class.

Bay Area pollution regulators said they expect their fines likely will be significantly higher.

The exact amount will be determined on a case-by-case assessment of several criteria set out in the state health and safety code. Those include the severity of the smoke, the impact on neighbors, the number of complaints and a violator's ability to pay fines — the same issues weighed in fining an oil refinery for a chemical release.

"We're not out to catch people by surprise," said Brian Bunger, the air district's general counsel, "but we want to protect people's health from the health effects of wood smoke on a few very cold nights when the problem is most severe."

The Bay Area typically gets about 20 nights a year on average when cold weather temperature inversions trap smoke near the ground, triggering Spare the Air alerts not to burn. Fires are allowed other nights.

Air district mangers said a $50 fine isn't enough to deter repeat offenders whose burning on bad air nights exposes neighbors to soot particles that can trigger asthma attacks, other lung and heart problems, and eye and throat irritation.

During air district public meetings the past two years, several Bay Area residents grumbled they could get no relief when neighbors persistently burned unseasoned wood, paper or other smoke-prone fuels.

"Smoke is a serious health issue," said Jack Broadbent, the air district's chief executive officer. The vast majority of people will follow the rule, but "a small percentage" may not, he said.

Critics of the rule say the air district should not regulate fires in homes. "In a time when people are being laid off, losing their homes and their 401(k)s, now they want to fine us for having a fire to heat our homes," said Bob Moore of El Sobrante.

Broadbent said the fines will be set to match the severity of the problem. If a homeowner burned while knowing the smoke aggravated a neighboring child's asthma, fines could be "in the thousands of dollars." On the other hand, some offenders might get little or no fine if the circumstances merited, he added.

The air district will rely heavily on public complaints to identify illegal burners, but the violations must be observed by district inspectors, officials said.

In Los Angeles, burning fines will be $50 for a first offense, $150 for a second and $500 for a third. Fines in Fresno range from $50 for a first offense to a maximum of $1,000. In Sacramento, fines are $50 for a first violation, but set on a case-by-case basis for subsequent violations.

Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or dcuff@bayareanewsgroup.com.

More information
Information on the Bay Area wood smoke rule is available at www.baaqmd.gov/
To get e-mail notifications of no-burn nights, contact www.sparetheair.org. To get automatic phone calls announcing no-burn nights, call 1-800-430-1515. To report burn rule violations or check whether it's a no-burn night, call 1-877-4-NO-BURN