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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
A cloud of haze and smog hang over Davis County in Bountiful Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — A cold snap has nudged fall off the doorsteps of the Wasatch Front. And with that change comes the seasonal warning by air quality regulators to cool it — fireplaces that is.

Nov. 1 officially marked the beginning of the state's color-coded pollution alert system for the winter months, particularly aimed at harnessing the ill health effects that come with inversions that settle in and bring their gunk with them.

Green means conditions are good; yellow is a caution that the air quality is getting worse and an all-out red alert means air pollution levels are unhealthy, particularly for sensitive populations such as the very old, very young, and those with respiratory conditions.

On yellow days such as the 11 recorded last season in Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Weber counties and the 12 logged in Cache County, residents are urged to refrain from driving if at all possible and to voluntarily resist igniting the wood-burning stove or fireplace.

"It's like a traffic signal, the yellow light," said Bo Call, manager of the division's air monitoring section. "People react differently. Some speed up and go right on through; others hit the brakes and realize they don't need to burn a fire."

During a yellow alert, the inversion may already be beginning to settle over the impacted areas, but it may take several days for pollutants to congregate to such an extent they pose a health risk, Call said.

"We may have an inversion for three or four days before we get to the red level," he said. "Or it may be that a storm comes through and clears things out."

On those red days, the division says residents should not drive if they don't have to and they can't have the home fires burning. The latter, Call said, can result in a citation.

"We get complaints about people burning on a red day," he said. "We pass out tickets, citations or fines."

The so-called smoke patrol looks for "visible" emissions coming from someone's place of residence due to a wood-burning stove or fireplace. Restrictions against such fires are in place as part of Utah's efforts to reduce pollution levels as required by the federal government.

Call said the restrictions aren't in effect continually during the winter months because air quality doesn't get bad enough to necessitate such a step.

"By and large we have good air, really clean, good air the lion's share of the time, the vast majority of the time," Call said. "It is that 5 or 6 percent of the time when the air gets gunky that we are trying to lower (pollution levels) down."

Call added that since the mid-1990s when the color-coded system first came online for the state, much has changed.

Just like cars, home heating appliances have evolved to become more efficient and cleaner burning, Call said, such as wood pellet stoves that generally do not produce any smoke. New EPA regulations are driving that change, along with generous rebates for better home heating options such as energy-efficient furnaces.

He's also noticed a sort of cultural shift when it comes to popularity of using a fireplace.

For some, using a traditional fireplace isn't worth the hassle of tracking down the firewood, chopping the wood, keeping the chimney maintained or the potential fire hazard.

"For some, it has fallen out of favor," he said. "It is so much easier to turn a knob and have a gas fire come on."

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Others, Call said, are "casual holiday burners" who only strike a match under the hearth during family celebrations over Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Spikes in utility rates or a recession may drive people to turn more often to a fireplace or wood stove for warmth, but much of that behavior again goes to what one has been used to, Call said.

"There are some people who have always burned who will always continue to burn; they feel it's their right," he said. "For people who start burning, it is more of a pain and more work than they want to put into it."

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