Improved winter air quality led air officials to declare fewer no-burn days this season.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District announced Friday that during the 2012-13 winter season, there were 187 instances across the eight-county district when wood burning was banned, compared to 381 during the 2011-12 season.

"We now have a more informed population that understands or has some knowledge of the air quality issues that affect everyone," said air district spokeswoman Janelle Schneider.

The Check Before You Burn program, which runs from November to February, curtails residential wood burning when air quality is bad in order to prevent a build-up of fine-particulate matter, known as PM2.5. The program has been in effect since 2003. Each day the district announces if wood burning is prohibited, or if it's allowed but residents are urged to burn cleanly.

Maria Isabel Garcia, 77, a Bakersfield resident, thinks Check Before Your Burn is needed to help improve the air.

"For the past two years I have been coughing and having allergies that have affected my sleeping patterns," Garcia said. "I was able to breathe without a problem or a cough back when I used to work in the cotton fields in 1982 but now, look at me."

But others don't think banning fireplace or other residential wood burning is a good idea.

"During the winter, I burned my wood-burning fireplace almost every day because it's my right," said Yolanda Watson, 48, a Bakersfield resident. "It's a lot cheaper to burn than to pay a PG&E bill."

According to Watson and other residents, the way to cleaner air isn't in regulating days people can and can't burn.

"A lot of the bad air in the valley is caused by the air we get from surrounding places, so controlling when people can or can't use their chimney is a waste of time," said Bakersfield resident Tammy Jones. "Clean air is necessary but chimneys aren't the biggest problem."

The air district has its own forecast team that pays attention to wind speed and direction, as well as any high or low pressure systems that may occur throughout the valley.

"We target days where the local contribution overwhelms sources of air pollution," said Stephen Shaw, supervising air quality specialist at the district.

An example of this would be when the smoke of a chimney rises above 15 to 20 feet and then loops around and produces a cloud over a neighbor's lawn or house.

"The air is unstable and there's a lot of different mixings in it already, so when you add chimney smoke, you increase the source of PM2.5 particles," he said.

And the increase in particles in the air can cause a range of health problems, such as allergies or asthma, according to Shaw.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls these harmful particles PM2.5, small particles of soot, ash and other airborne material that can penetrate deep into the lungs. They have been linked to a wide range of serious health problems, including premature death and heart attacks, as well as acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children.

This winter, there were just three days when air quality was "unhealthy" in any county of the eight-county air district, which includes the valley portion of Kern, compared to 41 such days the previous winter, the air district announced.

Residents who violate the no wood-burning days face a citation of $50, or higher, depending on previous citations.

"We respond to public complaints and inspectors that we have around areas, so if you don't want to receive a notice of violation, follow the rules and don't burn," Schneider said. "We are all breathing the same air and it's nice to be able to breathe clean air into our lungs."