Several south coast counties restrict wood burning fireplaces, but San Diego isn’t one of them. Not yet.
“Although it is not prohibited, wood burning in the home is a growing source of air pollution in San Diego County,” warns the Air Pollution Control District’s website.
This month, Del Mar’s city council had to decide the issue after a homeowner appealed a decision of the design review board that allowed her to install two fireplaces as part of a remodel — if they were gas-operated; Bernadette Anderson wanted them to be wood-burning. The board had said no, citing local code: “The design will adversely affect the health or safety of the neighborhood.”
Tiny particles in wood smoke can enter the lungs and bloodstream and are linked to a greater risk of health problems such as asthma and heart attack.
“It’s pretty nasty stuff. This stuff really is bad news,” said Del Mar deputy mayor Dwight Worden at a public hearing on February 6.
Anderson’s architect, Don Countryman, attended the hearing to defend the units, which are EPA Phase 2 qualified and 70 percent cleaner than traditional fireplaces. He said he hoped the city would “put the dirty fireplaces out” and embrace the improved fireplace technology.
But the design-review board had noted that “qualified” did not mean “specifically EPA approved.” (Wood-burning appliances qualified under the EPA’s Voluntary Fireplace Programs aren’t certified per EPA’s Wood Heater New Source Performance Standard.)
South Coast counties that limit wood burning — Orange County and portions of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties — don’t allow EPA Phase 2 Qualified open-hearth wood-burning fireplaces to be installed in an existing home.
The only wood-burning devices that can be added are U.S. EPA certified inserts/stoves, pellet heaters, and masonry heaters. Gas-fueled fireplaces are allowed.
According to state officials, most woodstoves and fireplaces release far more air pollution, indoors and out, than heaters using other fuels. The EPA, however, left fireplaces out of new rules in 2016 on wood-burning devices, since there are fewer of them.
But San Diego County does light up. A study of fireplace smoke in Escondido found it a source of air pollutants that are much higher in winter, when cold air and mountainous terrain trap the particles. The study ruled out traffic as a source. (Escondido’s Adopted Climate Action Plan discusses wood burning appliances but doesn’t call for restrictions).
Don Countryman argued that the location of Anderson’s home limits harm to neighbors. And they won’t be burning year-round. “These will only be in use for maybe three months each year, and on occasion.”
Councilmember Dave Druker didn’t agree that fireplaces are used only in winter. When it gets foggy in June, people have their fireplace going, he said. “It’s not just a winter deal.”
In fact, the city had made wood-burning fireplaces legal, boardmember Scott MacDonald said in January when they discussed the appeal. Since they had approved others, they couldn’t say no this time. Boardmember Beth Levine countered, saying the city never made wood-burning fireplaces legal; it had “remained silent on the topic.”
On February 6, the council granted Anderson’s appeal but concluded that it’s not the end of the discussion. They need to “figure out a policy on fireplaces.”
Druker said he was “worried about going the next step on this. We need to understand what other cities are doing,” he said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult, I think.”
Worden set out the three options the city has going forward. They could say no wood-burning fireplaces; allow those that use certain technology; or, no regulation. The 70 percent reduction in emissions that Anderson’s fireplaces would achieve may not be good enough — it’s not zero, Worden said. However, based on his research, the system is the best technology available for wood-burning fireplaces.
“So, if that’s not good enough, we've banned [wood-burning] fireplaces...because there is no better technology.”