My parents live in California, and we were talking about when they could use their fireplace due to the air pollution. We honestly had no idea about the restrictions on fireplaces but knew they were out there. So, we did some searching to find out more. Here’s what we found.
You can use your fireplace in California most days of the year. However, on days with high levels of pollution, your district may impose a temporary “spare the air” ban on burning wood. To know whether today is a no-burn day in your area, most districts have an alert system you can sign up for.
So, while you can normally use your fireplace in California, what are these “spare the air” days? When should you expect them, and why? Let’s find out more.
Can You Use Wood-Burning Fireplaces in California?
You can use a wood-burning fireplace in some California districts on most days, but it becomes illegal to do so in your area on no-burn days, which typically occur during the winter. No-burn days prevent wood smoke toxins from worsening air pollution, as breathing in these pollutants can cause health issues.
So, as long as it’s not a no-burn day, you’re free to use a wood-burning fireplace in California.
You might think that no-burn days usually happen in the summer. Since California has severe wildfire problems, limiting fires during “fire season” may sound perfectly logical. Wildfires actually have nothing to do with the wood-burning bans we’re discussing—well, almost nothing, but we’ll get to that later.
In fact, winter is when most no-burn days occur.
This is why some districts use the slogan “Spare the Air”. The goal of no-burn days is to limit and prevent the harmful effects of wood smoke pollution on days when air quality is already at a dangerous low, which is bad for both the environment and for us.
Some of the toxins contained in wood smoke include oxides of nitrogen (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), PM10, PM2.5, and even carbon monoxide (CO). Most of these toxins are harmful because they’re small enough to become lodged deep in our internal organs and contribute to health issues.
In fact, particles in wood smoke can be 1/70th the width of a human hair—small enough to get past your body’s usual defenses in the throat and nose.
Not only is wood smoke toxic to humans, but it has a significant impact on the environment too.
In response to these dangers, each district has established regulations that allow wood burning to be temporarily banned if air quality is already at an unhealthy level.
The specific details of these regulations vary across California’s 35 air districts. Let’s take a closer look at one of these districts.
Can You Burn Wood in a Fireplace in Los Angeles?
In Los Angeles, whether or not you can use your wood-burning fireplace is decided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
According to the South Coast AQMD, no-burn alerts can be issued from November 1 until the last day of February. Alerts last 24 hours, and they start at midnight once they’ve been issued.
You’re exempt from these alerts if one of the following things applies:
- You live in a low-income household
- Your house’s elevation is above 3,000 feet
- Your property line isn’t within 150 feet of infrastructure for natural gas services
- Your house’s only source of heat is a wood-burning device
What Are the Laws for Wood Fireplaces in California?
Laws regarding wood fireplaces vary across the state.
In many communities, wood burning is only limited during the winter. This used to be the case in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Spare the Air” alerts were once limited to the winter season, but as of 2019, they can be put in place throughout the year. This is especially helpful during summer wildfires when air quality can also reach extreme lows.
The differences between community regulations aren’t limited to the timing of no-burn days, though. Some districts have policies regarding whether you can even have a wood fireplace.
For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, any house built after November 2016 cannot have a wood-burning fireplace or a wood stove. The San Joaquin Valley also prohibits the inclusion of wood-burning fireplaces in new constructions, now allowing only gas-burning fireplaces, as of the adoption of Rule 4901.
In contrast, the North Coast Unified AQMD—which serves Del Norte, Humboldt, and Trinity counties—does allow wood-burning stoves in new constructions as long as they are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Are you wondering whether your device is EPA Phase II certified? If it was manufactured after 1990, it’s probably certified, but you can check out a list of EPA-certified devices here.
How Do You Know When You Can Use Your Fireplace in California?
How you know when fireplace use is allowed will vary by district, but no district makes it too hard to find out.
You should be able to find your district’s fireplace regulations and alerts about “Spare the Air” or no-burn days by simply searching for those terms and the name of your district.
In the North Coast, you can find advisories at ncuaqumd.org.
Can You Use Your Fireplace and Limit California Air Pollution?
If you would like to continue using your wood-burning fireplace or stove, but you also worry about the environmental and health effects of wood smoke, we have you covered.
Here are a few habits that you can incorporate to help do your part, even on days without a “Spare the Air” alert:
Firstly, when starting your fire, use softwoods, like pine and fir. They are easily lit and burn fast. Next, add hardwoods. Hardwoods will burn much longer than softwoods, and cleaner, too, producing less smoke. Because they are harder to get burning, we recommend using just a little bit of softwood at the beginning to get your hardwoods lit.
Additionally, when lighting or refueling your fire, do so quickly, as these are the times when the fire will produce the most smoke.
When it comes to what you burn, choose only clean, seasoned wood, and only non-glossy white paper. Burning garbage, plastic, plywood, particleboard, glossy paper, colored paper, painted wood, or treated wood can all release fumes into your home.
Finally, consider moving away from a wood-based heater. Wood burning fireplaces are generally pretty inefficient heaters compared to the alternatives out there, both in terms of heating and the output of air pollution.
On top of that, much of the heat from wood-burning fireplaces is lost to the chimney. This is usually up to 90% of heat loss.
Electric fireplaces don’t waste energy or produce fumes by burning wood. They rely on electric currents to generate heat, which is safer, and these fireplaces can create the same cozy atmosphere as wood-burning ones.
While I’m not here to dissuade you from using wood-burning fireplaces, there are simply many benefits that you can obtain from switching to gas or electric fireplaces, especially in California.
However, there is something primal and alluring about burning firewood. A good solution could be to use other heating elements (gas/electric fireplaces, furnaces, or space heaters) for your primary source of heat, and use a fire-pit whenever you have a fix for a wood-burning fire.