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.