Clearing the Air: Reducing Residential Wood Smoke in Portola, CA

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

It was a beautiful morning as I made the one hour drive from Reno, Nevada to the small rural mountain valley community of Portola, California. Each turn brought increasingly picturesque views of mountains, forests and lakes. As I started my descent into the city, I noticed a slight haze in the valley. Could it be fog? Was it an oncoming storm? Perhaps a forest fire? At another time of year, it might have been any of these natural causes. But at this time of year – early March, temperatures in the 30’s, no wind – it was none of these. What I was seeing hovering in the valley was a layer of smoke, and I was going to be spending my day discussing the environmental, economic and health benefits of reducing it.

Attaining Clean Air

The haze that I witnessed is partially formed by smoke from wood-burning appliances – wood stoves, pellet stoves and fireplaces – in the area’s homes. Portola is not alone. Many rural mountain valley communities experience elevated levels of fine particulate matter (PM) in the winter because of smoke from wood-burning appliances and the sustained temperature inversions that occur during the cold season. When wood or other biomass is inefficiently burned, it creates higher levels of particulate emissions, and increasingly leads to health impacts. PM2.5 is the primary form of particulate emissions from residential wood stoves and has been associated with increased incidence of asthma attacks and other respiratory problems especially in the elderly and young children.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors air quality in the U.S. and sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards – standards for air quality that must be met in order to protect public health. In December 2014, the EPA classified 14 areas across the country, including the City of Portola and surrounding parts of Plumas County, California as a “nonattainment area” due to unhealthy levels of fine particle emissions during the three year period from 2011-2013. This nonattainment designation triggers requirements for the community to take action to reduce pollution levels by 2021. Portola’s nonattainment status will remain in effect until the three-year average levels of PM can be shown to meet the air quality standards.

The Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD) is a regional air quality agency with a mission to conduct outreach and administer programs that will help bring the area back into attainment. NSAQMD is working closely with Portola city officials, local community organizations and state and federal government organizations to outline a plan to reach attainment by 2021. Which brings me to the reason I was driving on that beautiful mountain road leading to Portola on a crisp March morning. The roundtable discussion I was leading that day was designed to bring together organizations to roll up their sleeves, coordinate efforts, establish partnerships and work together towards a common goal – reducing wood smoke in the region.

The Changeout Challenge

Data provided by the California Air Resource Board indicates that Portola’s PM2.5 nonattainment status is mostly due to the impacts of residential wood smoke. Of the 2,150 households in Portola, approximately 36 percent use a wood burning appliance as their primary source of heat. Wood is abundant in Portola and many residents enjoy the ambiance, ease, and self-sufficiency of burning this renewable resource, especially because of its relative low cost and ready availability. According to the EPA’s Burn Wise website, a properly installed, correctly used, efficient wood-burning appliance should be mostly smoke free. If smoke can be seen or smelled, the wood is not burning efficiently and results in fine particulates in the air. In other words, the haze I can see as I approach Portola indicates that there is a problem with the way the wood is being burned.


To reduce the smoke (and the unhealthy particulate emissions), the EPA recommends that households learn efficient wood burning techniques and upgrade older wood stoves to cleaner-burning EPA-certified wood stoves, gas, propane or electric appliances. But this creates a new challenge for a small community like Portola. Given that a new wood stove can cost between $3,000 and $5,000, the Portola community faces a financial challenge in the effort to clean up their air. How do you incentivize a household – especially a low-income household – to change out a working wood stove with a more efficient alternative? It can only happen through a coordination of existing resources and the development of a tiered strategic plan to address not only the financial barriers to wood stove change-outs, but also the behavioral and cultural barriers that ultimately must be overcome in order to reach the attainment objective.

A Collaborative Strategy for Change

Before the ink had dried on the nonattainment designation, NSAQMD and the City of Portola had already started to work on fixing the problem. On that early morning in March, the Environmental Finance Center, EPA and NSAQMD convened a residential wood smoke roundtable with key leaders from community, environmental, health, financial, utility and local, state, and federal governmental organizations in the Portola and Plumas County area. Representatives from the EPA, California Air Resource Board, USDA Rural Development, US Forest Services, Liberty Utilities, Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative, Plumas Crisis Intervention and Resource Center, Portola Family Resource Center, Plumas County Public Health Agency and Plumas Bank joined NSAQMD and the City of Portola to roll up their sleeves, brainstorm solutions and form a collaborative plan.

The objective for the day was to review what the group already knew about wood stoves in the area and discuss outreach and financial assistance strategies for encouraging wood stove changeouts that could ultimately reduce wood smoke in the area and lead to attainment of the air quality standard. As the roundtable participants learned about their respective roles, shared ideas and discussed the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead, a comprehensive wood smoke reduction strategy started to form. As the day came to a close, it became clear that the financial “how you pay for it” question was only one piece of the puzzle. A proactive, collaborative strategy for improving air quality must include behavioral change, educational outreach, economic incentives and community support in order to succeed.

Key elements of Portola’s strategic plan:

  • Identify the local populations most affected by fine particulate emissions – including seniors and children.
  • Help local residents learn and educate each other about the health and economic benefits of efficiently burning wood.
  • Conduct outreach and host workshops for the community to demonstrate proper burning techniques and the benefits of cleaner, more efficient wood stoves.
  • Utilize existing government and utility financial assistance programs for income-qualified homeowners to help with wood stove changeouts and weatherization of homes.
  • Develop strategic partnerships with local wood stove retailers and financial institutions to offer financing alternatives for new wood stoves.
  • Establish long-term, consistent outreach and education through local schools and community volunteer organizations.

As the roundtable discussion came to a close and I started to drive out of the valley, one thing was very clear. Portola is a beautiful place to live with hard-working, self-sufficient residents who care about each other and the strength of their community. Reducing wood smoke quickly will not only help the area move out of non-attainment status, it will also help the community become healthier, more economically vibrant, and able to retain its pristine natural beauty and crystal clear skies for years to come.


  1. Ernest Grolimund

    Model pm2.5 from the replacement stoves and pellet stoves. Check to new safe dose for wood smoke pm2.5. Assume worst case operation and maintenance.

    Pellet stove, whole hse heat at capacity, 7 mcg/m3 pm2.5, 24 hr ave. Creosote creates 21 mcg/m3. Creosote and choking creates 63 + mcg/m3 pm2.5. Pm2.5 std is 35 mcg/m3. Illegal !!!

    Pellet stove dose, worst case, 63 x 24 = 1512 (mcg/m3),hr. Safe dose is 180. Unsafe. Constitutional right to safety violated. Illegal. Immanent dangers from heart attacks, asthma attacks. EPA modeling. EPA, ATSDR safe dose held in court.

    Burnwise program unsafe. Changeout program unsafe. Congresssional plan developed by politicians and not scientists. Do weighted average for estimate of pm2.5 conc. Visibility is what? 1 mile? 2 mile? Convert visibility to pm2.5 by Colorado methods. I estimate 150 mcg/m3 pm2.5 instant value from photo. Very plus or minus. Pm2.5 at night is worse.

    Consider this a health problem. Consider effect of 180 air toxics. No safe level of tobacco smoke. No safe level of wood smoke. Smoke what you see or smell or detect by scientific means. See the smoke? Duh. Obviously. Health problems must be stopped, immediately. Not over 3 year time period !!!

    Problem solving method dangerous, unsafe ! Shame on EPA, states, ATSDR. But more shame on politicians in Whitehouse and Congress. Oversight problem ! Public health problem. Extreme public health problem with immanent life safety dangers.


    Ernest Grolimund, retired engineer with EPA experience modeling pm2.5 from stoves, fireplaces and experience with legislators and Governors advisors in Maine. BSCE, genius IQ per Coast Guard, Governors commendations for wood smoke pollution work leading to new state laws, and new NSPS stds and new rules for wood chip boilers nationally. Waterville ME. 207-861-5765. Please call. Will help, pro bono. Spiritual beliefs call for charity when possible. God, life, put this problem in my backyard with an indoor wood boiler, stove, fireplace, then pellet stoves. I had to respond since a neighbor had a heart attack, daughter had an asthma attack and I was sickened. Gov authorities are part of the problem !!! The EPA OIG considers me an expert in this area of wood smoke. Gina McCarthy says the modeling I helped on is right and should be compared to the new safe dose for wood smoke pm2.5 not the pm2.5 NAAQS std. But politicians will not let her do anything. NSPS not designed to meet NAAQS or new safe dose for wood smoke pm2.5. Problems will likely occur in dense compact areas like this even with new stoves. Can save 50% on heating bill with $50 quartz heaters. Weatherization can save 50% on old houses for low cost. Insulate windows for 20% savings.

    • Ant

      My brief time of owning a house in Portola was a nightmare due to everyone burning TRASH and WASTE, absolutely sickening and toxic air, plus, obviously outdated and highly polluting wood stoves, emitting black smoke. Run from there out of concern for my health.

  2. william weaver


  3. Ant

    Portola has bad reputation for TRASH BURNING. No one does anything about this or cares. Plenty of local criminals (this is what they are) burn trash to heat their homes, they also burn various waste from construction/demolition, creating toxic, dangerous and nasty-smelling fumes. One can smell burning plastic, etc, a lot, they burn treated wood also. I had sold my house in Portola as don’t want to get some serious disease /get killed by the air quality. On some days it was impossible to walk as far as a couple of houses down the road, due to smoke. Also, junk wood stoves they use, and refuse to upgrade, create thick dark smoke, that sometimes gets pressed towards the ground and stays there, as a layer, one can see it creeping towards your house and into your lungs. One has to keep windows shut there. Anything goes seems to be the attitude in the place.

    • Dominic K.

      It sounds just like Humboldt County, California. The North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District knows that people burn trash in their stoves, but will do nothing about it. Nothing like a crisp fall day breathing in those plastic and arsenic fumes!

      Newer wood stoves do not magically emit almost no pollution. That’s what the hearth industry, which is responsible for Burn Wise, wants everyone to believe. Even the EPA admits that real-life emissions from certified stoves bear little relationship with actual in-home use. Newer stoves have also been found to have more mutagenic emissions than those from older stoves — they emit more nasty carcinogens such as dioxins.

      Part of the problem isn’t even the particulates themselves, although they certainly are known to cause serious health damage and even premature death among young and old (higher particulate levels are associated with more SIDS cases and a higher death rate in the elderly). Wood stoves and fireplaces also emit hundreds of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens and hazardous compounds.

      Tobacco smoke is also a form of biomass smoke, and its chemical profile is quite similar to that of wood smoke. Only when wood is burned, it emits far more of those toxic compounds. It’s past time for people to realize the incredible harm they do by burning wood, and it’s past time for our regulatory agencies to start putting human health above the financial health of the hearth industry.

  4. Angie

    Kudos to NSAQD for the wood stove changeout. Awesome job to Director Bennett, who went to D.C. to get money for rural CA!

  5. Ernest Grolimund

    EPA scientists emailed me the apportionment percentage of residential wood smoke pm2.5. It’s about 50% in winter. Design pm2.5 is 22 or about 20 mcg/m3. The wood smoke dose is 10 mcg/m3 x 24 hrs or 240 units. The safe dose is 180 units. Therefor there is very widespread public health problem in Maine and probably all over the country from wood smoke that probably cannot be seen or smelled. No EPA standard exists but there are constituitonal rights to life, health and safety and safety is the supreme law. The safe dose comes from a peer reviewed study by Dr Brown, former CT Toxicologist. The DHHS policy is to stop and prevent health problems but they are not being stopped. From a common sense perspective, there is no safe level of wildfire smoke or debris smoke you can see or smell and the smell is very common though not everywhere. But theoretically, everyone is being exposed to unsafe doses of wood smoke pm2.5. The presence of 180 air toxics makes the scientific assesment of risk almost impossible scientifically which drove the federal DHHS to pronounce that “There is no safe level of second hand tobacco smoke”. An ATSDR toxicologist told me verbally that there is no safe amount of any kind of smoke. But the wood smoke is still flying. In Maine, smoke and toxic gases are against the state building code and crimes of not enforcing the law are being committed all over The state Fire Marshall office agrees verbally but the Governors office, so far, has not been allowing anyone to do anything except analyze pm2.5 at EPA monitors and comparing to the pm2.5 std in the clean air act. Looks like a law suit will be needed. But lawyers do not understand the new science for the most part and will not sue. And environmental organizations and the Am Lung Assoc are taking money from stove companies and the like and pandering to members who burn wood and claim to save money from it. What a mess.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *