Wood-burning fireplaces like this one may be targeted by Metro Vancouver in an attempt to improve regional air quality.

Wood smoke is new burning issue in Metro’s crosshairs

Household fireplaces and wood stoves may face new restrictions

After fielding complaints for years about homes that burn firewood and smoke up the surrounding neighbourhood, Metro Vancouver says it will consider new regulations to help clear the air.

No decisions have been made on exactly what approach to take, but regional district staff have concluded wood smoke from home fireplaces and stoves may pose a significant health risk.

“The options range from an outright ban in urban areas to things like ensuring wood stoves meet certain emissions standards or having burning limited to so many days per month,” said Ray Robb, Metro’s environmental regulation and enforcement division manager.

The region is working with the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health authorities to get a better assessment of potential health impacts and the resulting study will be completed next year, helping guide decisions.

Metro gets about 90 wood smoke complaints a year.

A staff report said residential wood burning can lead to spikes in fine particulate levels in neighbourhoods and accounts for an estimated 16 per cent of all fine particulate emissions in the region, compared to 10 per cent coming from all large permitted industries.

But officials believe wood smoke causes an even higher proportion of harm to health because the emissions happen close to where people live and chimneys aren’t designed to dissipate smoke.

“These two factors combined result in a relatively high fraction of wood smoke finding its way into human lungs,” the report said.

Elevated particulate levels from wood smoke tend to happen in West Vancouver, Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond and Port Coquitlam, the report said, and exposure is highest when people burn in dense urban neighbourhoods.

Not everyone is convinced action is needed.

Langley City Coun. Gayle Martin, the vice-chair of Metro’s environment and parks committee, said Metro should leave the issue up to individual cities to regulate, if they wish.

“I don’t think Metro Vancouver needs to ban wood smoke,” she said, adding her city rarely gets complaints on the issue.

“Look at wood smoke compared to vehicles,” Martin said. “Do you plan on banning vehicles? Are we going to ban something every time we get a complaint?”

Martin said the consumer trend appears to be away from wood fireplaces in favour of natural gas anyway.

More than 230 wood stoves or fireplaces in the region have been upgraded to cleaner models since 2009 through a provincially funded rebate program, but thousands of older ones remain in use.

New wood stoves and fireplaces now sold must meet B.C. standards and most are highly efficient and produce much less smoke than old models.

But even the newest models can be heavy polluters if people use wet, green wood, Robb noted.

The two health authorities in 2011 told Metro evidence to that point did not justify tighter regulations and that more research was needed.

Any new rules are expected to be lenient on residents who use wood as their sole source of heat.

Robb said Metro wants to strike up a dialogue with residents on how it should proceed and what new rules would be supported.

He predicted the region will focus on education and take a gradual, slow approach.

“Things change,” he said. “If you asked 100 years ago if people might not be allowed to smoke in a restaurant, they’d say you were nuts.”

 

WOOD BURNING

  • One third of Metro households had a wood-burning fireplace or stove as of 2010.
  • Two-thirds of those are used regularly.
  • Half of users don’t burn for heat, but mainly for ambiance, entertainment or to get rid of garbage.