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Dry winter sparks increase in Valley burn bans
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When the San Joaquin Valley's "Check Before You Burn" program comes to a close today it will cap off a season that has seen a record number of banned burning days and some of the worst wintertime air quality.

The dry and relatively wind-free weather that has been routine for most of this winter has had an adverse affect on the region's air quality and sparked an increase in the number of no-burn days issued by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Check Before You Burn, which runs from November through February each winter, determines when residential wood burning will add dangerous levels of particulate matter - tiny pieces of soot, ash, dust and other materials - to the Central Valley's air, and prohibits the use of residential wood-burning devices. Wood-burning forecasts are issued by county each day.

There are two forecast levels, depending on air quality: "Wood-burning Prohibited" and "Please Burn Cleanly." When a prohibition is declared, burning any solid fuel in a residential fireplace or wood-burning device is not permitted and violations may result in fines. Backyard chimaeras and fire pits are also subject to the prohibitions. There are two exemptions: If the residence does not have access to natural-gas service, even if propane is available; or if burning solid fuel is the sole source of heat for the residence.

When burning is allowed, the air district recommends using manufactured fire logs or dry, seasoned wood to minimize emissions.

So far this season there has been 51 burn prohibitions issued in Stanislaus County. For the entire 2010/11 season there were 25 issued in Stanislaus County. Merced County has had 33 issued so far, compared to 23 last season. San Joaquin County has had 29, up from just seven for all of the last winter season.

"The number of no-burn prohibitions this season is completely out of the norm," said air district spokesman Anthony Presto. "The dry, stagnant weather we've been experiencing means the air pollution doesn't have a chance to disperse."

Citations can be issued by the district for those ignoring the prohibitions. A first time offense nets a fine of $50, but the fine can be waived if the resident completes the district's air pollution exam. A second offense costs $150; additional fines can run up to $1,000.

"People usually don't make the mistake a second time," Presto said.

Most violations are discovered by residents calling in to report neighbors burning on non-burn days, as opposed to a team driving around looking for tell-tale smoke.

The air district has issued 836 notices of violations so far this winter.

While ozone is the dominant pollutant in the Central Valley during the summer months, the main winter pollutant is fine particulate matter and wood-burning devices produce more of it than the average vehicle driving around, Presto said. The air pollution from burning solid fuel in fireplaces and stoves releases fine particulate pollutants that can be harmful to the lungs and heart.

"Fine particulate pollution settles deep in the lungs and because it is so fine it can pass through the cell walls and into the blood stream," Presto said.

High levels of particulate pollution can have serious health effects, including bronchitis, lung disease and increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. Young children, elderly people and people with existing respiratory and coronary disease are especially vulnerable.

Particulate pollution doesn't naturally drift away, but instead remains in the air unless it is cleared away by rain and wind - a weather pattern largely absent this year in the Central Valley.

Prior to this season, the Central Valley had seen improvements in the air quality during the winter months.

"The past two winters have been exceptionally clean, in large part because of the public's support of Check Before You Burn," said Seyed Sadredin, the air district's executive director and air pollution control officer.