New state law may prompt mandatory burn bans, fines

If you have a fireplace, wood stove or outdoor burn pile or fire pit, take note:

For the first time in history, there may be mandatory burn bans on Whidbey Island this winter, Northwest Clean Air Agency officials warn.

Tighter health standards in regard to pollution particulates may prompt enforceable bans in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties if weather conditions warrant, the NWCAA said.

If a mandatory ban is in effect, violations could mean $100 to $300 fines for the first offense, and more for subsequent offenses, said Laura Curley, an agency spokeswoman.

“We haven’t had to call burn bans in the past,” Curley said, “but if we have a ban, our inspectors will be in the field.”

“No bans have been issued so far this year,” she said. “We thought we might have to issue a ban this past weekend, but then it rained.”

She said that in the past, island residents have been urged to voluntarily restrict indoor and outdoor burning during air pollution advisories, when stagnant weather traps smoke, increasing the chances of health problems.

But this year the state Legislature, to conform to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revisions, lowered by nearly half the air-quality level required for installing a mandatory burn ban.

The former level was 65 milligrams per cubic meter of fine particles

(2.56 milligrams or smaller). The new level is 35 milligrams per cubic meter, Curley said.

Households with no other source of adequate heat are allowed to burn during a mandatory ban, but they are required to follow all other wood-stove rules, she said.

“Wood smoke is a complex mixture of fine particles,” Curley said. “The smallest particles can travel deep into the lungs and stay there, causing structural and chemical changes.”

She said research shows that particulate matter is associated with premature death and serious health effects, including risk of heart attack and stroke, lung inflammation, reduced lung function, asthma-like symptoms, asthma attacks and cancer.

“Those most at risk for health effects are the most vulnerable members of the population,” Curley said. “Children, the elderly and people with lung or heart disease. Even people who are healthy may have temporary symptoms such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest tightness; and shortness of breath.”

If a mandatory ban is instituted, the new restrictions will likely come in two stages, Curley said.

During Stage 1, the use of all uncertified wood stoves and fireplaces, and all outdoor burning would be prohibited. Uncertified units are typically older than 1993 and lack a certification label on the back of the unit. Use of certified units would be allowed.

When Stage 1 hasn’t reversed the increasing pollution trend, and weather conditions still indicate a high risk for exceeding air-quality health standards, a Stage 2 ban would go into effect.

During a Stage 2, no burning would be allowed in any wood-burning fireplaces, wood stoves or fireplace inserts (certified or uncertified) or pellet stoves. Natural gas and propane stoves or inserts are allowed.

Residents with no other source of heat can request an exemption allowing them to burn during a burn ban by e-mailing or sending the NWCAA a letter explaining their situation, Curley said.

The NWCAA’s e-mail address is and its mailing address is 1600 S. Second St., Mount Vernon, WA 98273.

Residents in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties also can sign up to receive e-mail updates about burn-ban information or learn more by visiting

Curley listed other current wood-stove restrictions:

• Prohibited materials: Only dry, clean untreated wood or manufactured logs legally can be burned. A small amount of paper is legal only for starting a fire.

• Smoke density (opacity) limits: Opacity is a visual measurement of smoke density. It is expressed as a percentage from zero percent (clear or no smoke) to 100 percent (vision completely obscured). The legal opacity limit for smoke is 20 percent.

Excessive chimney smoke is prohibited except for limited periods during start-up and refueling. Fines can be issued if smoke is observed exceeding state standards.

• Nuisance effects: It is illegal to unreasonably impact neighboring properties with smoke, odor or ash. Residents are urged to report nuisance smoke to NWCAA, Curley said.

• Installation and sales of new or used stoves: All wood heating devices sold or installed in Washington must be EPA or DEQ Phase II certified to meet emission standards.

Before selling, purchasing, giving away or installing a used wood stove, check with NWCAA or the county building and codes department.

The NWCAA is a governmental agency responsible for ensuring compliance with federal, state and local air quality regulations in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties. The agency also sponsors numerous voluntary programs to further improve air quality. For more information,

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