Bay Area May Further Restrict Wood Burning Due to Air Quality Deterioration

Outdoor kitchens are becoming increasingly popular in the San Francisco area, with more and more residents installing wood-burning features such as pizza ovens and smokers in their backyards; a 2013 member survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects found that fire pits, grills and outdoor kitchens are the hottest trends in outdoor design. But the smoke that comes along with these fixtures has both local residents and air-quality watchdogs urging the local government to restrict outdoor grills and barbecues.

Among them is Noelle Robbins, whose neighbor installed a meat smoker in his backyard last spring and began leaving it on for extended hours. “We would wake up — 11:30 at night — with our bedroom full of smoke. And it would happen all night long,” Robbins told InsideBayArea Jan. 19.

These individual concerns tie into larger discussions of how air quality affects public health and the environment. Research carried out by the University of California, Davis in 2012 found that wood-derived charcoal caused the most toxic smoke of all pollution sources common in residential neighborhoods.

Air-quality officials have announced that they will hold public meetings in February and March to discuss current restrictions on wood burning and potential tightening of the guidelines.

“Spare the Air”

The continuing drought in California is exacerbating air quality problems, with a particularly dry three years meaning that stagnant air builds up in the area.

The Bay Area is seeing some of its worst winter pollution in close to a decade. In response, officials have issued a record number of “Spare the Air” alerts, with 11 in a row since the beginning of the year, SF Gate reported Jan. 12.

On days for which the alert is in place, people are prohibited from burning wood either indoors or outdoors (people for whom a wood-burning stove is their only heat source are exempt). And even when burning wood isn’t made illegal by the alert, officials are asking people to be conservative.

The problem, those who are concerned about the air quality say, is that fires used for cooking food are exempt from the regulations as well. This means that while officials can remind residents about the potential harmful effects of wood or charcoal grills, it is up to people to police their own use in this respect.

“To decrease emissions while cooking outdoors, we recommend using propane gas, which decreases smoke as well as hazardous carcinogens released into the air,” said Jane Rother, owner of Lawn & Leisure. “There should always be proper ventilation, using the appropriate ceiling height — a minimum of 10 feet — for your outdoor kitchen is a must.”

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