The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is not just another government agency with an unwieldy title and a lot of directors (22, at last count). It is the state-appointed body that regulates the "stationary sources of air pollution in the nine counties that surround San Francisco Bay."

In the winter months, that means it's the fireplace police.

When meteorologists determine that cold, still conditions will trap particulate-filled wood smoke close to the ground, the agency declares a "no burn" day, meaning you're forbidden from burning your firewood in your fireplace in the house you own.

Put another way: On Spare the Air days, this is the land of the free only if you have gas logs.

This has been a big winter for "no burn" days -- 15 since Nov. 1, including both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If you roasted chestnuts on an open fire on those occasions, you were subject to a warning (first offense) or $400 fine (second offense).

It is difficult to argue with the intentions. Wood smoke particulate can contribute to lung disease and aggravate asthma. As one who occasionally sucks on an albuterol sulfate inhaler, I know the joy of a clean windpipe. But in the world of unavoidable consequences, "no burn" days have been a real bummer for firewood dealers.

Jim Martin, of Pittsburg, who's sold firewood for 12 years, said this season has been the worst he's experienced. Each time a Spare the Air alert is issued, his stomach is tied in knots.


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"It's just very upsetting," he said. "You can't do business this way. Last year, I probably sold 1,500 cords by now. It's about 400 this year. Next year will probably be my last year."

Bruce Fessenden, a Richmond firewood dealer for 35 years, wonders if the clean air cops have gone too far.

"I think these laws were made to address a situation that existed about 20 or 30 years ago," he said. "There's a lot less firewood sold now in the Bay Area than in the 1980s -- I'd say a third or maybe a quarter as much.

"A lot of my customers feel the way I do, that there are other, worse sources of air pollution, like cars, diesel trucks, city buses and industry -- especially here in Richmond. When a jet plane takes off, it emits a lot of exhaust in the first five minutes."

Don't take his complaints as indifference to the cause.

"I'm an outdoors person, and I'm in favor of most environmental causes. But I have mixed feelings about this one."

Kenny Sevier, of Vallejo, is less reserved in his misgivings. He owns a tree removal service and has sold firewood for 24 years.

"I just don't like the government sticking its nose in something that I don't deem necessary," he said. "Anytime you tell somebody they can't do something they've been doing for years, of course they're going to be unhappy."

Six years ago, he was selling 800 to 1,000 cords of wood per season. Now, the number is closer to 300. He used to have 12 employees; now he has four.

Regular customers keep returning, he said, but new ones are rare.

In the era of clean air, is there a stigma to being a firewood dealer?

"I don't know," he said. "If there is, I guess there should be stigma attached to people who sell gasoline or diesel or alcohol, too.

"Actually, if you think about it, the government should be giving me a credit for recycling. I'm recycling the trees I cut down. I'm not dumping them in a landfill."

Maybe the board of directors can take that up the next time they pull up their 22 chairs.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.