Summer is (finally) done and as the cooler months approach, one county agency is working to clear the air while spreading cheer this holiday season.
With the monsoon fading into the rear-view, oncoming colder weather typically hurts air quality and raises risks for some vulnerable residents — especially when smoke from wood-burning fireplaces adds to the mix.
Bob Huhn, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Air Quality Department, explained that while pollution advisories are less common in the summer, cooler weather leads to greater health concerns and more frequent no-burn announcements.
“We have no-burn restrictions all through the summer. However, when we have no-burn days, it’s what most people talk about. It’s mostly in the winter, because that’s when people are more likely to do wood-burning activities,” he said.
This summer, pollution levels improved compared to previous seasons, according to Richard Sumner, a professional engineer and permitting division manager at MCAQD.
“September was another outstanding month for PM 2.5 emissions,” Mr. Sumner stated. “For the month, the concentrations were 18% below the previous three-year average for September. On a year-to-date basis, the story is the same; 17% below the previous three-year average.”
The PM 2.5 level measures tiny particulate matter in the air, like smoke, which causes haze and may trigger health concerns for some, especially those with respiratory conditions.
The risk is highest on colder days, because our bowl-shaped Valley traps denser, stagnant air near the ground along with pollutants on the coldest days, just as people are most likely to stoke their fireplaces at home.
Though the official no-burn campaign doesn’t ramp up until December, his agency offers advice along with a few programs, which may benefit some homeowners ahead of the arrival of winter weather, Mr. Huhn explained.
“People also have a tendency to do more wood-burning activities around the holidays,” Mr. Huhn said. “What happens is the forecasters have a template that they follow and it’s based on the weather and the winter inversion and there’s higher likeliness of activities involving wood burning. They combine all those things with other factors, like is it going to be raining or windy, and they’ll put out either a high-pollution advisory or a health watch of PM 2.5.”
And while pollution advisories and burn restrictions may seem “grinchy” to some, the occurrence of high-risk days is mostly random, Mr. Huhn explained.
“Everybody thinks we automatically do it on the holidays, but that’s not the case. Last year, we did have no-burn days for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But we did not have them for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” he said. “We ask people to abide by these no-burn regulations because those are the days with the highest concentration levels and the unhealthiest numbers.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, high levels of fine particulates can worsen a number of conditions and exacerbate health outcomes, affecting both the heart and lungs, especially among children and the elderly.
Some exposure risks include premature death for those with heart and lung diseases, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma and decreased lung function, including irritation of the airways, difficulty breathing and cough, according to the EPA’s website, epa.gov.
The county offers more information along with daily reports and pollution advisories at its Clean Air Make More campaign site, cleanairmakemore.com. Locals can also call the air quality hotline daily at 602-506-6400.
While the urge to indulge nostalgia and holiday cheer rises as temperatures fall, the increased number of fires burning only adds to the health risks for vulnerable residents, Mr. Huhn reiterated.
“Folks most of the time don’t use it for heat; it’s mostly for ambiance,” he said. “And while a lot of people say one fire won’t make a difference, the affect is cumulative, however.”
For those eager for Yuletide cheer who still want to help make air quality better, the county offers a pair of programs aimed at dousing the number of wood fires burning.
The Maricopa County Fireplace Retrofit Program provides two options: a natural gas log set and an air pollution reduction device.
For the first option, the county will pay up to $2,000 of the cost to convert a wood-burning fireplace to a gas fireplace for qualifying residents.
“Most of the time it’s free of charge,” Mr. Huhn said. “We offer a $2,000 voucher for those homes. Usually the cost of installation is under that price, but it just depends. For some residents, it’s free.”
Interested homeowners must apply, get quotes from contractors and undergo a chimney inspection to determine if their home is eligible for retrofit; if so, the whole process can take up to 90 days to complete and many projects require no additional out-of-pocket costs.
The gas log set may be used on no-burn days, though the devices are not typically relied on as a primary heat source.
The pollution reduction device, by contrast, can cut up to a 70% of PM 2.5 output over the standard wood-burning fireplace. Though use of fireplaces with the device is still not permitted on no-burn days.
While the device is provided at no cost, the program is limited to those who reside within the boundaries of 59th Avenue to 16th street, from Baseline Road to Northern Avenue. Installation, once qualified, usually takes up to 30 days.
Another option, the Propane Fire Pit Program, subsidizes the purchase of a gas-powered fire pit, which can kindle the Christmas spirit without contributing to particulate pollution, Mr. Huhn explained.
“We’re giving vouchers for propane fire pits,” he said. “And we suggest residents keep any eye out for sales.”
Administered in partnership with Home Depot, the voucher program allows up to $75 for qualifying residents to buy a gas-powered fire pit.
Learn more about the programs at cleanairmakemore.com or call 602-506-6400.