Nearly six years into a Bay Area ban on wood fires on bad air days, the most scofflaws are routinely found in the North Bay.
The top three Bay Area cities and 11 of the top 15 cities for violations were found in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties over three burn seasons, according to Bay Area Air Quality Management District records.
Santa Rosa led the way with 84 illegal burning tickets, ahead of Napa with 41 and Windsor with 33, according to a Bay Area News Group records analysis.
Some much larger cities had fewer violations: San Jose had 21, Concord 15, Oakland 7 and San Francisco had just one of 587 total tickets written during the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 burn seasons.
The analysis gives the first city-by-city breakdown for violations of the regional smoke rule passed in 2008 to protect public health against tiny soot particles that can trigger asthma attacks, strokes and other ailments.
A city-by-city breakdown is not yet available for the record-tying 30 Spare the Air days called this past burn season -- Nov. 1 to Feb. 28 -- but there were 267 total violations issued compared with 178 over 10 alert days in the 2012-13 season. The number of complaints of wood smoke were huge -- 5,091 this past season, compared with 2,315 the year before.
Air district officials, who released the 2013-14 data Tuesday, believe the word is getting out.
"Our goal isn't to write violation notices but to get people to follow a law that protects public health," said Ralph Borrmann, an air district spokesman. "We believe the rule is working."
The latest data shows North Bay counties continued a trend of high violation numbers. Sonoma County, usually the region's leader for violations, was second with 65 citations. It was just behind San Mateo County, which uncharacteristically topped the Bay Area with 67 tickets.
Marin County's 40 violations was third-highest. Napa had 15 citations, below its average.
The North Bay's many violators, officials say, are likely due to colder weather, valleys that trap smoke, many wood stoves and fireplaces, and ample firewood.
Some suggest it also may be rural residents' independent streak and disdain of government restrictions.
"You have people on opposite sides of the political spectrum -- Marin County counterculture and the traditional Sonoma County agriculture -- agreeing on one thing here: Get government out of my face," said Mark Ross, an air board member also on the Martinez City Council.
"People have access to wood, and they're used to using it," said Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, also an air board member. "But they don't realize the smoke has toxic effects that are very serious."
One of the people most unhappy with burn limits is Greg Talamini, owner of Nero's Firewood in Novato. With 30 Spare the Air alerts, "This has been a horrible year for firewood sales," he said. "Every Spare the Air alert is like ripping hundred dollar bills out of my pocket."
Air pollution inspectors say they don't arbitrarily target the North Bay, but focus on neighborhoods with a history of public complaints. And North Bay counties have more than their share of complaints.
During the burn season ending last week, Marin County again led the Bay Area with 1,058 complaints. Sonoma was fourth-highest with 699 complaints, just behind Contra Costa with 772, and Santa Clara County with 717. Napa County had 138 complaints.
Some North Bay residents complain the smoke rule leads to more violations in rural areas where Pacific Gas & Electric doesn't offer natural gas.
The air district exempts homes without a permanent heat source, but not if residents can use propane.
Rural Santa Rosa resident Calvin McDonald said he discovered this when ticketed in January 2013 for burning wood instead of heating with propane. "It's much more expensive to heat with propane than burn wood," McDonald said. "It's unfair."
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a Santa Rosa resident on the air pollution board, said the district needs to do more to publicize and enforce the rules.
"It all goes back to enforcement," Zane said.
Although there were a total of 7,466 wood smoke complaints from all over the Bay Area, only 538 citations were issued over the three seasons analyzed. District officials say it's not always easy to catch a violator. The rules require an inspector to see the smoke for themselves -- a difficult task if chimneys are blocked by fences, trees or buildings. Also, people burn less wood than before, as shown by public opinion surveys and borne out by reductions in winter soot levels.
Average soot concentrations dropped 24 to 43 percent in some Bay Area measurements between 2000 to 2010, according to a 2012 district report.
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