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Alliance representatives say the smoke coming out of our chimneys is a big deal. Automobiles may be the No. 1 contributor to air pollution, but homes, small businesses and buildings aren’t far behind.

Four years ago, about 500 people jammed into the 160-seat Cache County Courthouse to make a point: Don’t take away our right to burn wood in the winter.

That word, “right,” came up, as it did in other hearings around northern Utah. So did the idea that government was overreaching, according to news reports at the time.

Gov. Gary Herbert had asked the state’s Air Quality Board to see how the public felt about banning wood burning completely between Nov. 1 and March 15 in seven northern Utah counties susceptible to inversions.

The reaction was strong and negative. At one meeting in Tooele, someone said the government might as well ban all cars if it’s going to head down that slippery slope, the Deseret News reported.

Reaction was so strong that the Legislature subsequently passed a bill outlawing any complete, seasonal ban on wood burning, period; and Herbert signed it into law. Maybe you can’t fight city hall, but apparently you can fight the state Capitol if your fireplace is under attack.

This subject came up the other day during an editorial board visit with the Utah Clean Air Partnership and Alan Matheson, director of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

It is a subject thrust upon us every winter, whether we like it or not — like the flu outbreak, only without a vaccine. You don’t have to earn a living watching the air to be thinking about it. After each storm, we watch the skies for signs that smog is building, hoping another storm comes along before it gets too bad.

On days like that, some of us fantasize about giant electric fans, stationed strategically around the Wasatch Front, oscillating at high speed and pushing all the gunk into Nevada.

Matheson said his staff actually studied that idea, “for fun.” The conclusion was, for the fans to work it would take the energy output of the entire Western power grid. That would, of course, generate a few other problems along the way.

So quit dreaming about that one, but don’t stop worrying about the problem.

Actually, people don’t need to be reminded to do that. Envision Utah surveyed high-tech employees in the state and asked them to list the top reasons why they might consider leaving Utah. The top answer, for 69 percent of respondents, was air quality. Our quirky Utah culture came in a distant third at 39 percent.

And this despite what our visitors said has been a dramatic improvement in air quality through the years — although nowhere near anything that would be considered a victory.

Which brings me back to fireplaces.

Partnership representatives say the smoke coming out of our chimneys is a big deal. Automobiles may be the No. 1 contributor to air pollution, but homes, small businesses and buildings aren’t far behind. Together, they contribute 39 percent of the fine particulates in the air on an average winter workday, and wood burning stoves and fireplaces make up 15 percent of that.

And yet they estimate only .0003 percent of Utahns rely on wood to keep their homes warm.

With seasonal bans outlawed, the best the state can do is mandate restrictions on bad air days.

What’s wrong with that? First of all, some people keep burning through the smog anyway, and little money is available to enforce the restrictions. But beyond that, blue skies can be deceptive.

“The day after a storm, the inversion kicks in immediately,” Matheson said. “Even though you have a green air day after that, everything you put into the air is helping to build it.”

The governor’s proposed budget includes $100 million to fight air pollution, including money to help people convert wood burning devices to natural gas. The Legislature will have to decide whether to do this and how. Such incentives have been popular in the past.

People would protest anything stronger than an incentive. Suggest we buy electric cars and you’re OK. Mandate it and people come unglued. I get it, and I don’t disagree. A nudge is better than a push.

41 comments on this story

I’m also as nostalgic as the next guy. Crackling fires are great, especially with hot chocolate and a good book.

But I also have a grown son who has struggled with asthma his whole life, including times when he was young and I sat with him in hospital rooms.

The discussion should focus on where someone’s right to burn wood ends and his right to breathe begins.

Correction: An earlier version misnamed a local clean air organization. It is the Utah Clean Air Partnership, not the Utah Clean Air Alliance.