UPDATE: Maricopa County Declares No-Burn Day for New Year's Eve and Day

Restrictions on wood-burning fireplaces in Maricopa County have snuffed out yule logs each Christmas for most of this decade. Will this year be any different?

[UPDATE December 30: The county has declared a no-burn day for December 31 and January 1, 2017.]

Lucette Ramirez says people at the county's Air Quality Division are on "pins and needles" waiting to find out, but no decisions have been made. The county bases its "no-burn day" declarations on daily pollution data collected and published by the state Department of Air Quality. Residents can check the county's website to find out if the county has dashed their plans to enjoy the warmth and comfort of a wood fire.

Gas-burning fireplaces aren't affected and can remain lit all season long.

The Wood Burning Restriction Ordinance, adopted by the county and most metro Phoenix cities in 1997, aims to reduce air pollution — especially particulates, which are tiny bits of soot and debris that can cause reduced lung function, asthma, or even death for some people. Burning wood causes the federally regulated PM-10 and PM-2.5 particulate pollution to fly into the air. (PM-10 means particulate matter 10 microns in diameter or smaller; PM-2.5 means particles 2.5 microns or smaller.)

The Valley is home to more than four million people. With geology-caused temperature inversions that trap pollution in Phoenix during the winter, it wouldn't take too many fireplaces and chimineas to make the air quality rival that of Manila or Mexico City.

As of Thursday evening, the extended forecast on DEQ's website shows that PM-2.5 levels will rise to a moderate level on Christmas Eve, but no health-watch or high-pollution advisories are mentioned. That could change depending on the conditions on Friday. If DEQ declares either a health watch or pollution advisory, the county automatically follows with a public announcement banning wood-burning, Ramirez says.
The county can declare a no-burn day on its own, though, if it appears that elevated particulate-matter pollution is likely. A significant criterion for the county in deciding whether to make the "no-burn" call is the likelihood that people will burn wood that day — meaning Christmas and New Year's Eve are always good bets for a ban.

In 2008, the ordinance expanded to include PM-2.5 thresholds, out of concern that fireplaces during the 2006-2007 winter holiday season had caused the county to violate federal standards for PM-2.5. The change has meant no-burn days every Christmas Eve or Christmas Day from 2009 to 2014.

Last year, the county allowed fires on Christmas Eve, but not on New Year's Eve. Following this month's kickoff of the annual restriction season, officials declared a no-burn day for December 18 because of high PM-2.5 levels.

Hundreds of complaints about violators pour in to the county's pollution hotline each year, but most offenders simply receive a warning letter. The county also sends "canvassing letters" to entire neighborhoods when inspectors identify certain areas, but not specific homes, that seem to harbor more of the scofflaws.

Last year, about 350 complaints resulted in five notices of violation — one to a restaurant, and four warnings to residents, according to Ramirez. First-timers receive warnings. Subsequent violations can mean fines up to $250.

Suspected offenders can try to talk their way out a fine: The ordinance allows exemptions when a wood fire is the only available heat source. But the ordinance has a broad scope, prohibiting all outdoor wood fires, including at campgrounds. Residents aren't allowed to ride their ATVs or other off-roading vehicles on no-burn days, either, nor can landscapers use leaf blowers on government property.

A sample of Maricopa County's letter to neighborhoods with wood-burning ban offenders:

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern