When longtime Bakersfield resident Tim Stonelake wants to start a fire in his home hearth, he relies on just one kind of fuel:

Natural gas.

Same goes for regulatory affairs consultant Christine Zimmerman, who has avoided burning wood for years out of concern for her family’s health and the health of her neighbors.

Eric Burrows has stopped wood burning as well.

“We have a gas-ready, wood-burning fireplace,” Burrows said in a Facebook comment. “Never burned wood in it.”

Not so many years ago it seemed having a fire blazing in the home hearth on a cold night was as American as turkey on Thanksgiving.

But in California's southern San Joaquin Valley, where smoke from winter fires often remains trapped near the ground — in the very air we breathe — attitudes about fireplaces are changing as some in Bakersfield begin to equate wood fires with unnecessarily risking the health of one's neighbors and loved ones.

Smoke from residential wood burning, especially when the valley's winter inversion layer keeps it trapped low to the ground, not only can irritate the airways, it can be toxic over time, said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Tiny particles in wood smoke can cross into the bloodstream, which is especially dangerous for people with heart problems and other conditions. Wood smoke has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children.

Make no mistake, the passion and intensity of those who hold their fireplace freedoms dear remains strong. There are still residents in the valley who believe they should be able to burn wood whenever they desire, including on so-called no-burn days.

But Holt said she has seen a gradual change taking place in the culture and attitudes of many valley residents since 2003, when wood-burning restrictions were first set in motion through the air district's annual "Check Before You Burn" program.

These days, the district is more likely to get calls from someone complaining of wood burning in their neighborhood, rather than complaining that burning is restricted.


The annual fireplace-use program that regulates wood burning in the San Joaquin Valley is now in its 15th season. Officials with the air district have credited the program for dramatically reducing winter particulate pollution throughout the eight-county district.

The determination to allow or to restrict residential burning is made daily from Nov. 1 through the end of February, and the determination often differs, depending on county, region or weather.

There have been three "No Burning Unless Registered" wood-burning curtailments in the valley portion of Kern County since "Check Before You Burn" resumed Nov. 1. 

And for the first time this season a curtailment  is in effect for Saturday in the southern Kern County mountains (Lebec, Frazier Park, Lake of the Woods, Pinon Pines, Pine Mountain Club, etc).

These daylong mandatory curtailments prohibit the use of unregistered devices due to poor air quality. The curtailment applies to burning wood and pellets in unregistered residential stoves and inserts as well as burning wood, pellets, manufactured fire logs in fireplaces or outdoor burning devices such as fire pits and chimneys.

It seems this changing behavior isn't only affecting the valley air district.

According to statistics from the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, shipments of fireplaces, wood stoves and inserts in the United States have fallen from a peak of nearly 800,000 units in 1999 to 209,000 last year.

David Bonner, owner of Bakersfield Chimney, said the push to reduce wood burning in the valley has significantly affected the fireplace service and sales industry.

Years ago, there were seven or eight chimney sweeps in Bakersfield, he said. Now there are two.

"It kind of flat-lined," he said when regulations began to take effect. "We took a big hit."

Both the city and the county are bound by the state building code and the California Green Building Standards Code.

Residential developers recognized years ago that natural gas-fired hearths were the way to go in homes that included a fireplace. Very few wood-burning fireplaces are built into new homes anymore, except for a relatively few custom homes.

Indeed, almost all new hearths are gas-fired, the air district confirmed.

The air district expects to soon have the results of a survey measuring attitudes toward wood burning in the valley.

"Anecdotally, we're seeing people moving away from wood," Holt said. 

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(2) comments

Moose jaw

I wish they would curtail wood burning in the Kern River Valley; There are times when the air is choking with smoke. In part because so many idiots don't know how to stoke a fire or to use properly seasoned wood (but that's another story).


Move to Oregon.....we burn October thru March. No more lousy CA air.

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