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No Burn Laws

Arizona has a variety of laws and ordinances that surround how and when you can use and open flame; each application is identified to offer you a better understanding of how these rules keep people safe from harmful toxins and out of control fires.

Outdoor Fires

All the Arizona counties have ordinances and regulations that limit outdoor burning.  Whether we are talking about bonfires and camp fires or burning trash and yard waste, the state and counties have strict regulations.  The regulations are meant to both prevent air pollution and to prevent forest fires.  In rural Arizona, forest fires are the primary consideration.  When weather conditions are dry and fire danger high, fire prevention procedures are strictly enforced.  The National and State forests post warnings prohibiting campfires, and local governments limit all outdoor burning.  In the past decade, wildfires have caused devastating damage in Arizona.  Lives have been lost and property destroyed.  A number of those fires were caused by man.  When fire danger is high, no burn signs will be posted on highways and in campgrounds.  Radio and television news will broadcast warnings to the public.  Park rangers and police will not hesitate to cite people engaged in unlawful burning.  That includes people throwing lighted cigarettes out of car windows.  Although the laws regulating outdoor burning are vitally important, this article focuses on fireplaces and backyard fires.

No Burn Days for Fireplaces, Fire Pits and Chimineas

We are all familiar with notifications of “no burn days.”  We hear about no burn days on the news and see them listed in the paper during the winter months.  But, why do we have no burn days and how is the law enforced?  Both metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson are surrounded by mountains.  Phoenix and its surrounding cities are situated in a basin, ringed by mountains.   During the winter months, longer nights with little wind and cold temperatures combine to cause inversion conditions.  Warm air layers trap the cooler air in the metropolitan areas, and the surrounding mountains prevent the polluted air from escaping.  The stagnant, polluted air can linger for days, with the polluted air causing serious health problems for many residents.

Every winter, local hospitals see a noticeable increase in patients with respiratory issues caused by wood smoke.  Children and the elderly tend to be hit the hardest, but even healthy adults can be affected.  Wood smoke from fireplaces, fire pits, and chimineas contain PM10 and PM2.5 pollutants.  PM10 is a particulate that is 10 micrometers or less in diameter.  PM2.5 is a particulate that is 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter.  These particulates are inhaled and settle deep in our lungs.  Long term exposure can lead to bronchitis, asthma, heart attacks and other medical problems. 

Both Maricopa and Pima counties have air pollution monitors scattered across populated areas that measure ozone, carbon monoxide and several types of particulates, including PM10 and PM2.5.  Pima County estimates that in 2002, there were approximately 70,000 households in Pima County burning wood in fireplaces or outdoor devices.  The burning wood in these devices emitted 3,100 tons of carbon monoxide and particulates.  That was 15 years ago.  Pima County has done a lot of growing since 2002.  We can imagine how much higher the numbers are today.

The statistics in Maricopa County are far worse.  During cold, winter days, Maricopa County households emit over 52,000 pounds of CO per day.  According to the American Lung Association, running for 30 minutes in a polluted area, like Phoenix during an inversion, produces as much carbon monoxide in the blood as smoking a pack of cigarettes.  The problems are serious, but too many residents think the law shouldn’t apply to them and regularly ignore no burn day restrictions.

The worst fireplace pollution occurs during the holidays.  The weather is cold, inversions are common, and everyone wants a holiday fire to set the mood.  December 24th, December 25th and New Year’s Eve are almost always designated as no burn days because of the overwhelming number of holiday fires.  Christmas stockings hang on the fireplace mantle and folks want to sit before a roaring fire and drink hot chocolate.  The picture is so appealing that many people ignore the no burn notice and light the fire.  In 2011, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were no burn days, but the Maricopa County pollution levels exceeded the Federal standard by twice the limit at some air quality stations.

When Maricopa County Air Quality Department issues a No Burn Notice, the restriction lasts for a 24 hour period, beginning at midnight and lasting until midnight the following day.  Pima County monitors air quality and issues pollution alerts when inversions occur.  Pima County’s Department of Environmental Quality has mounted an extensive campaign to educate the public about the air quality dangers posed by wood burning devices.

Exemptions to No Burn Laws

There are exemptions to the No Burn Laws in Maricopa County.  The exemptions are spelled out in County Ordinance P-26.  A county resident may be exempt if the fireplace or wood burning stove is the only source of heat in the residence.  The exemption is not automatic. The resident must apply for a new exemption every year.  The county may issue a temporary, sole source of heat exemption if the resident making the application qualifies for financial assistance under the criteria for Medicaid or Food Stamps.  There are also emergency exemptions where a heating system is broken or when utilities have been cut off by the utility company. All exemptions require a written application.

Enforcing No Burn Laws

Enforcing no burn laws is difficult.  In fact, it is downright impossible with the limited resources the Maricopa County Board of supervisors have been willing to allocate to the endeavor.  There are penalties on the books for violating the Maricopa County ordinance.  For a first violation, the resident receives a warning in the mail.  Subsequent violations can result in fines from $50.00 to $250.00.
Like other public agencies, the Maricopa County Department of Air Quality has suffered budget cuts and layoffs in the past ten years.  There are more than 1 million, single family residences in Maricopa County.  In 2011, The Arizona Republic reported that there were only 4 or 5 inspectors who volunteered to patrol for violations over the holidays.  It’s an impossible task.  County Supervisors must allocate financial resources as best they can.  They have designated the clean air risks posed by fireplaces and wood stoves as a lower priority than providing other important services.  County Boards of Supervisors in both Maricopa and Pima Counties are reluctant to pull resources from other areas because while we exceed Federal standards during winter inversions, both Pima and Maricopa County meet overall Federal pollution standards.  The EPA looks at overall, annual figures rather than specific instances of violation.

What We Can Do to Improve Air Quality

First, and most obvious, take no burn days seriously.  Don’t use wood stoves, chimineas, fire pits or fireplaces on designated no burn days.  Of course, you can convert your fireplace to gas, but that is an expensive option. Still, gas and electric logs are more efficient for heating your home than a wood burning fire.  Eighty percent of the heat generated by a gas log insert radiates out into the home.  Contrast that with a wood fire where most of the heat goes up the chimney.

Instead of buying a wood burning stove, buy a pellet stove.  Wood pellet stoves burn small pellets made from compressed, recycled wood by-products.  Pellet stoves offer the same roaring fire but are far more efficient and clean burning than a wood stove.  If you don’t need the heat, fill your fireplace with candles.  You can light the candles at night and enjoy the scent of candles and a warm glow emanating from the fireplace.

No matter which option you choose, please take air quality seriously.  We don’t want Arizona cities to become like some of the cities in China where you can’t go outside without a mask to filter the air.  We no longer live in small town, Arizona.  The estimated population of Arizona for 2016, is 6,937,347 people.  In the 2010 census, Maricopa County had almost 4 million people (3,817,117); Pima County had just under a million with 980,263; and Coconino County had 132,000.  When such large numbers of people are compressed into metropolitan areas, air quality issues are bound to follow.

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

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