Hold Your Fire! More No-Burn Days Likely Over New Year’s Holiday

Sorry, pyromaniacs. Another ban on wood fires and wood-burning stoves is looking highly likely next week as people ring in the new year.

On Monday, levels of PM 2.5 — microscope particles that can travel all the way from a person’s lungs to the bloodstream — are expected to spike, the forecast from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality shows.

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This, in turn, means that the Maricopa County Air Quality Department will most likely declare no-burn days on Monday and Tuesday. During no-burn days, you cannot burn wood — not in your fireplace, in your fire pit, or for that New Year’s Eve bonfire you were planning on having.

Those no-burn days haven’t been officially declared yet, but Bob Huhn, spokesperson for the Maricopa County Air Quality Department, said the department would do so as soon as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued a high pollution advisory.

“We will have inspectors out there looking on no-burn days,” he added. “I don’t know how many yet, but we will be out there.”

If people want to report violations, he said, there is a hotline for complaints: 602-372-2703.

The first time you violate this ban, your punishment is a warning and “educational material,” according to air quality department literature. For the next violation, you’re fined $50. After that, it’s $100, then $250.

Some readers might disagree, but this is not supposed to be a crackdown on fun. It;s an effort to stop the air from becoming so polluted that it violates federal standards and makes people sick.

The county air quality department and the statewide Arizona Department of Environmental Quality have already banned burning wood once this holiday season, from December 22 through 25.

Levels of PM 2.5 are expected to hover between 50 and 60 micrograms per cubic meter on Friday and over the weekend. But on Monday, they’re forecast to skyrocket to 137 — well above the federal standard of 100 micrograms per cubic meter.

If you’re a healthy person, you might find yourself coughing and sneezing or being short of breath. If you’re a child or an elderly person, or if you have a lung disease, it could be worse. Children under the age of 2, for example, have been found to have a higher risk of acute lower respiratory infections when they’re exposed to PM 2.5.

The lower parts of the Valley, along the Salt River and Central Phoenix, plus west Phoenix, tend to be more affected, in part because they are geographically lower in elevation. The way the wind blows predominately from the north also has something to do with it, Huhn said. “Even if one person is having a fire in, say, north Phoenix, north Scottsdale, they’re contributing to the pollution,” he said.

South and west Phoenix also tend to be more affected by the pollution because they have more, older homes with wood-burning fireplaces.

The upcoming expected spike in pollution is pretty much because of New Year’s Eve, when people tend to light fireworks and firecrackers and fires. But it’ll be exacerbated by a cold spell expected over the weekend with temperatures at or below freezing. That will not only prompt people to cozy up to their wood stoves, but create meteorological conditions that allows pollution to linger and stagnate in the Valley.

On Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve in 2017, PM 2.5 levels violated federal standards. Huhn blamed wood fires and ground fireworks — and the air.

“Last year we had really stagnant air, and the pollution just lingered,” he said. 

To be clear, the soaring displays of fireworks put on, say, at Steele Indian School Park, are not an issue, Huhn said. “It’s the ground fireworks” that people set off at home, he explained.

But although the Air Quality Department can ban burning wood, it doesn’t regulate firecrackers and fireworks.

As for the cold air, it doesn’t rise the way hot air does, and so in the winters it traps pollution, explained Nancy Selover, state climatologist for Arizona.

“We don’t have any air that’s rising up. When it’s really, really cold, all of the pollution is pushed down to the ground. It’s a thin layer, but it’s very, very concentrated,” she said.

That layer is about 500 to 1,000 feet tall, Selover said. Without warmer air to help create circulation, the pollution stays put.

Someone who wanted to get a look at the pollution from above could climb a peak like Camelback Mountain, Selover said, and they would see a thin, dark brown cloud over the city.

“It just kind of sits here, day after day after day,” she added.