Did you know there was a burn ban in Pierce County earlier this week?
If not, the folks at Puget Sound Clean Air Agency are going to be very disappointed.
Public awareness long has been one of the agency’s biggest hurdles in dealing with the county’s wood-smoke problem, and this year it launched an extensive public-relations campaign to spread the word.
The agency hired a new PR firm and a new communications supervisor; it set up five billboards in the Tacoma area; and it’s on Facebook. Officials are texting and tweeting. They’re buying print and online advertising, and they’re handing out thousands of brochures.
They’re even giving away prizes.
On Friday, five Pierce County residents who entered a “replacement drawing” will win new heating systems, and others will win cash vouchers worth up to $1,500 each to get rid of an old polluting wood stove and replace it with a cleaner heat source.
“We’re basically doing everything we can think of to get the word out,” Joanne Todd, the Clean Air Agency’s new communications supervisor, said Wednesday. “We’re trying to really encourage people to get rid of their old uncertified stoves.”
Ramping up the PR is not the only change the agency is making this year. It’s also ramping up enforcement.
Last year, it had just eight inspectors to enforce burn bans in the county. This wood-burning season, thanks to increased authority granted it by the Legislature, the agency will have as many as 67 inspectors available during the bans. Most of them will be part-timers lent by Pierce County and the cities of Tacoma, University Place and Lakewood.
Inspectors will be equipped with high-tech cameras capable of documenting smoke coming out of chimneys — even at night — and stamping images with the time and address of the violation.
Violators will be fined $1,000.
The greater Tacoma region is one of 31 areas in the country that don’t meet federal air-quality standards for fine-particle pollution (soot).
Fine-particle pollution in Pierce County exceeds allowable limits only during colder fall and winter months, when many households rely on the use of wood-burning devices for home heating.
The state is under heavy pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to meet the soot standards, but it’s a daunting task. The Clean Air Agency estimates some 24,000 uncertified woodstoves remain in the Pierce County “smoke-reduction zone” despite years of effort to get rid of them.
The smoke-reduction zone (formerly known as a non-attainment area) includes all of Tacoma and most other populated areas in Pierce County.
First-time violators of burn bans will have options other than forking over the money, Todd said. They’ll be able to avoid paying by changing stoves, participating in training, signing up for automatic burn-ban alerts or making use of any of a number of other conciliatory actions. Low-income families might be eligible for a heating upgrade at no cost.
“It’s a way of starting a conversation,” Todd said. “We don’t want to have to go around punishing people. What we want is to clean the air up.”
There are two categories of burn bans. During a Stage 1 ban, no burning is allowed in fireplaces or uncertified woodstoves. During a Stage 2 ban, no burning is allowed in any fireplace, pellet stove or wood stove, certified or not.
During both types of ban, those who have no other source of dependable heat are exempt from requirements.