Higher wood-burning fines aimed at Utah’s winter inversion days — forecast to start this week

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Pollution obscures the skyline as it continues to settle into Salt Lake City, as seen on Jan. 17, 2017. State officials are predicting Wednesday will be the first no-burn day of the current winter season.

It’s that time of year: chestnuts roasting on open fires, but this season, with toughened state penalties against wood burning, in hopes that residents will find other ways to make the season bright.

If the forecast holds, Utah’s Wasatch Front is due for its first major inversion of the season this week, with cold weather conditions creating a kind of temperature lid that keeps air pollution hovering over the valley.

Regulators at the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) on Wednesday enacted the first seasonal “mandatory action” wood-burning ban across Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah and Weber counties — and this year, flaunting the rules could cost you more.

The DAQ has raised its penalties for using a fireplace, wood stove or any other solid-fuel burning device on a designated “no-burn” day from $25 to $150 for a first-time offense. Repeat offenders will pay $299, instead of $150.

Because no-burn rules have been on the books for years and are widely known to the public, DAQ watchdogs felt the penalties for ignoring no-burn bans needed to be more stringent, said Jared James, an environmental scientist with the agency.

By boosting the fines, he said, the division hoped to get residents to “take wood burning more seriously and pay more attention to the burn conditions.”

DAQ research suggests that at least some Utah residents ignore the bans. Its scientists found that in spite of the rule, the amount of wood smoke in the air on no-burn days remained about the same as when the ban was not in effect.

Ashley Miller, policy director for air-quality advocacy group Breathe Utah, said she hoped the larger fines will deter Utahns from burning wood. But, she said, environmentalists and state scientists are still searching for ways to adequately address wood burning on the Wasatch Front.

A complete ban on wood-burning devices would violate state law. Higher penalties, meanwhile, may not be the entire answer, said Miller, who noted that few Utahns who received the prior $25 fine repeated the offense.

Last winter, the agency cited 12 residents for violating a mandatory burn ban — one in Salt Lake County, two in Davis County, three in Cache County and six in Utah County.

Miller said she believes the solution lies in educating the public regarding the harmful effects of burning wood.

“We really need to target the messaging toward … people who are choosing to burn wood for no other reason than to have the atmosphere,” Miller said. “A comforting fire, a romantic fire — however people view it, it isn’t really romantic. It’s actually bad for your health.”

The DAQ declares no-burn days during inversions to help prevent the build-up of pollution that can turn otherwise routine weather events into a health concern. In mountain valleys such as the Wasatch Front, warm air above the valley can form a sort of cap, trapping cold air — and anything in it — over the region. Those inversions typically remain in place until a new storm front stirs up the air.

The current weather forecast suggests Utah won’t get another storm for at least a week, leaving plenty of time for air pollution to build up, said Bo Call, who oversees the DAQ’s air-monitoring section.

“An inversion is likely to set in [Wednesday],” Call said, “and once the inversion sets in, we get in that cycle of building and building and building until the next front comes through.”

Utahns can check to see whether a burn ban, or “mandatory action” day, is in effect by checking the forecast at air.utah.gov or downloading the UtahAir ap to get mobile alerts. Per county ordinance, burning wood and other solid fuels is banned in Salt Lake County when compliance with the burn ban is deemed “voluntary.” In all other counties, fines are only assessed on “mandatory action” days.

Violations of the burn ban can be reported to the DAQ by calling 801-536-4000 or via an online complaint form.

In some areas, having snow on the ground is likely to make pollution worse in the coming weeks, Call said. Snow cover reflects sunlight, which triggers reactions in the chemicals in the air to form small particulate pollution.

The Wasatch Front has failed to meet federal standards for small-particulate pollution for a decade.

“This time of year people need to be conscientious about how much they’re polluting,” said Call. “Everything that pollutes, if we can do less of it, then we’re better off.”