SALT LAKE CITY — Mark McMillan Sr. has been taking his wife and son up in the mountains near Mirror Lake every year, for 30 years, to chop down dead trees.
He gets a permit for four cords of wood, and last year indulged in a $1,300 wood splitter he describes as a real beauty.
"It's something we have really enjoyed as a family," McMillan said.
When Esther and Tim Olschewski bought their home in West Valley City, they specifically made the purchase because it had a fireplace. They ripped out the natural gas appliance upstairs and replaced it with an Environmental Protection Agency-certified wood stove they use to heat the entire main living area of their home.
Esther Olschewski says they invested in the $3,000 stove with its efficiency in mind after years of research — and made sure it had a cook top in case of an emergency.
"We have ways to feed our family if there is a power outage," she said. "What is the point of having all this food storage if you can't heat it?"
The McMillans and Olschewskis are among residents of a newly formed coalition called Utahns for Responsible Burning, organized in response to a first-of-its-kind proposed wintertime ban on all wood burning along the Wasatch Front where pollution exceeds federal health standards.
The proposal would impact all of Utah, Salt Lake and Davis counties, all of Weber County to the Wasatch mountains and portions of Box Elder, Tooele and Cache counties. It would begin this year, Nov. 1, and run through March 15 and be an annual ban.
Public comment on the proposal is being taken through Feb. 9, and the Utah Division of Air Quality has scheduled seven public hearings in the impacted counties that kick off Tuesday in Tooele at the county health department.
The division is also readying surveys to tap public opinion and get at a more definitive number when it comes to how many households have fireplaces and stoves, and more importantly, how many residents use them.
During the past few years the Division of Air Quality has been under pressure by multiple groups to consider exacting tighter controls over wood burning, including an outright ban.
Gov. Gary Herbert also has said a seasonal ban should be considered, and the Utah Foundation said the most cost-effective way to cut down on harmful pollutants is to refrain from using a fireplace or wood-burning stove.
Like secondhand smoke
Advocates say carcinogen-causing wood smoke is the new secondhand cigarette smoke. It's filthy and damaging to public health, passing through the body's defenses and causing premature deaths, complicating asthma and contributing to heart disease, according to the groups.
The wood smoke is like secondhand smoke because even if your household isn't burning a fire, your doors and windows won't stop your neighbor's smoke from creeping in, said Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
"I think what makes this issue so unique is the fact that wood smoke can be a very localized problem in which the victims have no control over it. Wood smoke happens to be the only pollution emitted where people spend most of their time — which is their home," Wagner said.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said it is clear that people are not following the mandatory ban on burning wood or coal when the division calls a "red" or mandatory action day.
"With respect to solid-fuel burning, we know that it does impact the regional air quality even though there have been episodic restrictions in place for over 20 years," Bird said. "This indicated to the (air quality board) that the status quo is not allowing the region to meet the health standard."
But Mark McMillan and Esther Olschewski say they are not villains to be demonized, and they shouldn't be punished for making investments in the best available technology via their EPA-certified wood stoves, which are far more efficient and less polluting than a simple open-burning fireplace.
"We just feel this ban is painting us with a broad brush and is saying that all wood burners are evil. It is really offensive," Esther Olschewski said. "My husband is a mechanical engineer. We both have college degrees. We are educated, smart people. We feel like the governor and those who are supporting this ban are not looking at the whole picture."
Impact on the air
When the state was inventorying the area's fine particulate or PM2.5 emissions as part of the requirement to come into compliance with federal Clean Air Act standards, environmental scientists looked at the contributory role of wood smoke.
Bird said they found it makes up about 5 percent of the total PM2.5 emissions — a reduction that would be achieved with an outright ban or if everyone followed the law.
"But the bottom line is that we are not meeting the health standard, and we are still finding smoke on the filters when we analyze them," he said.
McMillan said to go after all wood burners is a knee-jerk response that is not only unfair but extreme. He likened it to prohibitions against high-profile vehicles driving along I-15 during high wind days.
"With the total ban on winter wood burning logic, UDOT would ban all high-profile traffic on the highway during this same period for safety reasons, regardless if the wind is blowing or not," he said.
The newly formed coalition wants the rule to contemplate an exemption for EPA-certified wood stoves, which emit up to 90 percent less pollution than traditional, older stoves, according to John Mortensen, an owner of Energy Distribution Systems, a wholesaler of hearth appliances and co-chairman of the coalition.
Bird said nothing is off the table, and the board will weigh the comments it receives before it takes action later this year.
Is there a compromise?
Even so, he pointed out that even the cleanest EPA-certified wood pellet burning stove, per unit of energy, is 60 times more polluting than a natural gas furnace, which is 300 times cleaner than a stove burning regular wood.
Mortensen said the coalition does not dispute that natural gas furnaces are cleaner than EPA-certified wood stoves, but he insists an outright ban is excessive, ignoring the economics and self-reliance associated with wood burning.
"There are a lot of people out there who need to burn to save on their fuel costs," he said. "Basements are cold, and people want to be able to use that space in their home and save on their heating bills at the same time."
McMillan said cutting dead trees in the Wasatch forest produces more than 9,000 cords of wood — wood that would be left up there as fuel for far more dangerous kind of fire.
Both suggest that EPA-certified stoves should be exempt on voluntary action days and, of course, shut down on mandatory days.
An outright ban, Mortensen added, ignores the unpredictability of weather and natural disasters.
"In the last year with the Polar Vortex in the Midwest, they declared an emergency in 24 states because they could not deliver propane fast enough. They even asked people who had natural gas furnaces to turn down the thermostats because they were overloading the system," he said. "If something like that happened here, and we had gone that far with these bans and gotten rid of the stoves, what would happen?"
Mortensen said a better approach would be one modeled after Fresno County in California, where officials made an exception for EPA-certified stoves on no-burn days and even offered a pot of money to incentivize households to convert.
He said other major metropolitan areas such as Seattle and Denver have also stopped short of a ban, instead opting for exemptions for EPA-certified stoves on certain days.
Advocates insist that anything short of a ban ignores the area's struggle with poor air quality.
The EPA estimates there are 10 million wood stoves in operation in the United States, with 65 percent of them older, inefficient conventional stoves.
The agency says that just 20 of those older stoves can emit 1 ton of fine particulate. Through its program called Burnwise, the agency offers advice for community "change-out" programs or other wood-smoke reducing efforts.
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