Fireplaces like this one emit 20 to 40 times more fine particulate than a tough new U.S. EPA standard that Metro Vancouver may adopt as its limit.

Metro Vancouver plans wood burning crackdown

Smokiest fireplaces, stoves may be stamped out by regional district regulations

Wood fireplace owners who smoke up the neighbourhood may be in for a fight with Metro Vancouver.

Air quality planners at the regional district will propose to gradually restrict wood burning in the region to reduce the health hazard posed by fine particulate.

The move is expected to rekindle a contentious debate that pits fireplace fans’ right to burn against neighbours’ right to breathe.

“The problem of wood smoke is widespread throughout the region,” Metro air quality and environment director Roger Quan said.

Metro gets 75 to 100 complaints a year about wood smoke polluting residential areas and officials think it offends many more people who either don’t know where to complain or are reluctant to tattle on their neighbours.

“The wildfires in the summer were hopefully an eye opener for people to realize the kinds of smoky conditions that we saw in July are happening on a nightly basis in some neighbourhoods in the region.”

Details of the potential regulations haven’t been released – and they would require approval of the regional district board – but Quan said Metro is looking closely at the approach taken by Montreal.

Home owners there were ordered last year to declare their wood-burning appliances or potentially face fines. They then have three years to upgrade their fireplaces and stoves, if necessary, to meet a tough new emissions limit of 2.5 grams of fine particulate per hour.

“Our proposed approach would also be to put in some sort of performance standard that you must meet,” Quan said of the pending regulations, which could will soon come to Metro’s climate action committee. “It’s not going to ban wood-burning devices entirely.”

The 2.5-gram limit was chosen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and if adopted by Metro would stilll allow certified wood stoves with low emissions.

But unmodified fireplaces – which release 20 to 40 times more particulate than that standard – would be the first in the crosshairs of Metro regulators, followed by less efficient stoves.

“Fireplaces are particularly high particulate emitters,” Quan said. “There’s no controls whatsoever. And besides the health impacts, it is not an efficient way to heat your home.”

Quan knows Metro will face resistance from the many residents who are “quite fond of burning wood” for the nostalgic ambiance of a crackling fire.

So the phased approach would include not just the threat of financial penalties for violators who keep using inefficient wood units, but incentives to help with the costs to upgrade or remove them.

The B.C. government already offers $250 through a provincial wood stove exchange program to upgrade to natural gas or cleaner burning wood models and Metro could supplement that further.

The regional district has already used a similar carrot-and-stick system of significant penalty fees coupled with upgrade incentives to persuade diesel equipment operators to clean up or retire their dirtiest engines.

That’s thought to be one of the reasons diesel particulate has declined as a share of total particulate in the region.

Wood smoke levels in Metro have been relatively constant, with population growth offsetting the ongoing replacement of some fireplaces.

But because diesel and other particulate sources are down, wood stoves and fireplaces are now estimated to make up nearly 25 per cent of fine particulate in the region, up from 16 per cent in 2012.

Planners also believe wood smoke exposure is particularly high because the smoky chimneys are often in dense urban neighbourhoods close to many residents.

Quan envisions consistent enforcement of the new rules, rather than a system that only responds to complaints.

The regional district has been unable to enforce existing air quality laws against fireplace owners because it’s hard to prove a specific home is responsible for localized pollution without a search warrant.

Metro officials pursued broad wood smoke regulations once before only to have regional politicians reject their proposal in 2011.

Most new fireplaces being installed are natural gas or electric rather than wood, but Metro staff are also contemplating whether to recommend building code and municipal bylaws ban wood ones entirely.

“Should there be any wood-burning fireplaces in new construction at all? We feel there shouldn’t be,” Quan said.

Public awareness is also part of the strategy.

Metro now issues air quality bulletins for wood smoke when cold stagnant air is expected to produce smoky conditions. The first bulletin was issued in late November.