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Vierra pitches clean air
That handsome guy on the "Check Before You Burn" billboards paid for by the San Joaquin Valley Air board looks familiar. And don't think that Chris Vierra, a Ceres city councilman who chairs the district board, isn't taking a ribbing.

"It does spur a lot of coffee table chat, I can say that," said Vierra.

The air district embarked upon its $1 million public outreach campaign last month in order to get the public to adhere to practices that will help improve air quality. Vierra as well as other elected officials serving on the air district board were used in billboard, cable TV commercials, movie trailer and radio spots in their home areas. Vierra's image is on at least three areas, including one on H Street in downtown Modesto, one on Highway 99 north of Whitmore Avenue and one near Salida. As another example San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas has a photo being used on Stockton billboards.

"I've heard people tell me that they've seen them on DirecTV on Nick at Night,.. but to be honest I have not seen any of my commercials. It's probably better that I don't because I never like the way I look anyway."

The billboards recently went up at numerous spots in the Valley in an attempt to get residents to think about calling a toll-free number before they decide to burn. The posters read "Check Before You Burn Do Your part for Healthy Air Living." It also bears the number, 1 (800) SMOG INFO and the website address.

The air district covers an eight-county area stretching from San Joaquin to Kern counties. Experts forecast what the air quality will be on any given day. The district has adopted a rule that when particulate matter reaches the threshold of 30 microns that a no burn day status is implemented.

Those who are cited are subjected to a $50 fine or undergo a training program.

"On one day of asking people to not burn we will get a reduction of about 16 tons per day of emission reduction," said Vierra.

By comparison, he said, the air district would not realize that much savings even if it were to implement "draconian" rules to regulate emissions Valleywide.

"So it really is an important deal," said Vierra.

He said the number of no-burn days is not a lot but depends on many factors. "We may be talking 20 days that you can' burn."

"On the days that you can burn we ask that you burn cleanly."

The district website offers a number of clean-burning tips. They include:

• Ensure firewood is clean, seasoned and dry before burning it. Unseasoned wood smolders and creates additional emissions.

• Never burn trash, magazines, newspapers, plastics or other materials not designed to burn in fireplaces or stoves. Doing so is illegal and hazardous.

• Replace old solid fuel-burning equipment with cleaner EPA Phase II-certified or pellet-fueled devices. Or install natural gas or propane devices, which are not subject to Air District wood-burning rules.

• For an ambience fire in an open fireplace, a manufactured firelog may be a cleaner alternative to wood.

The no-burn rule does not apply to persons whose only source of heat is burning, said Vierra.

Vierra said enforcement of the rule is not intense.

"We don't have people who are driving around out there who are looking to cite people. Most of the time if you get cited one of two things has happened. One of the inspectors happens to be going to, let's say a processing facility where they're doing permit checks or whatever and they happened to notice somebody's burning. That's one way, or ...someone in your neighborhood observed... and turned you in.

"It is a law, a regulation but it's not one of these where we're trying to make it difficult for people. Our whole goal is to just try to improve the air quality in the Valley."

Vierra has served on the air board for three years, as the chairman in 2009. His six-year term ends in 2012.

The board meets at 9 a.m. on the third Thursday of the month but does not meet in July and November. Meetings are held at locations in Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield.

The state Legislature gave the district permission to hold videoconferencing at the two other locations without violating the Brown Act.

Last year the district sent Vierra to Washington, D.C. to lobby for an enterprise zone for the Valley.

The district has had its "Check Before You Burn" program for about 10 years and believes that it's been effective. Last winter was one of the cleanest air periods in recent memory because of the curtailment of fireplace burning, he said.