Multnomah County regulations ignite debate on wood stoves
Should Multnomah County ban wood-burning stoves on days when the air quality is already unhealthy?
County commissioners say the proposed policy would be enforced only three to five days a year on average — with special exemptions for low-income residents and those with no other way to heat their homes.
The prohibition would likely take effect on days between Oct. 1 and March 1, when an atmospheric condition called "inversion" traps smog and other pollutants beneath a layer of warmer air.
The draft ordinance targets households that use a wood-burner as a secondary source of heat, like Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who said she has two fireplaces inside her home in East Portland's Hazelwood neighborhood.
"If it's a chilly day, we'll put on the fire for ambiance or whatever," she commented during a public hearing Monday, Nov. 6, in Fairview. "But we don't need to. We have a heat pump."
There would also be a carve-out for families using clean-burning pellet stoves certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a draft text of the ordinance.
Enforcement would be based on complaints, and the first strike would be a piece of certified mail explaining the policy. Three-peat offenders could be hit with fines that top out at $500.
"At least in our neighborhood, we don't turn each other in," remarked Victoria Purvine of Corbett. "I can see that working in town, but I can't see that working out where we are."
Of the seven private citizens who attended the meeting, the majority either already supported the measure or learned they would be exempt because they have no other heating source.
"I don't have a dog in the fight either way. I like to breathe but I also know people like their fire," said Rick Sanders, who is considering adding a wood-burning stove to his home in an unincorporated area near Fairview.
Health officials would rely on the National Weather Service to predict upcoming inversion days, and the no-burn order would be issued several days in advance.
Government planners considered changing state building codes to stop installation of new wood-burning fireplaces. But lobbyists with the powerful Home Builders Association quashed that idea, noted Multnomah County Health Department policy analyst Matt Hoffman.
"Many of the comments I've been seeing, they seem like knee-jerk reactions," Hoffman said. "Of course I like a nice warm fire, but I'm not going to burn my fireplace on a day when it's going to harm my neighbors and the folks around me.
"We can't choose the air we breathe, so it's important we take a look at what's in it," he continued.
At the meeting, Fairview Mayor Ted Tosterud said he supports clean air, but worries how county officials would explain to complainants that their low-income neighbors can keep burning.
"I don't think it's fair to the citizens that we put a sign in their yard saying, 'Hey, I'm exempt because I don't make enough money,' " he testified.
"You're always going to have that 10 percent of the population who go fooey on any ordinance that comes out. But the majority of the people that live in our area do want to follow the rules," added Wood Village Councilor Mark Clark.
If the Portland area's air quality falls beneath certain federal benchmarks, the EPA will require local governments to draft more stringent curtailment measures, which will almost certainly include a partial ban on wood-burning stoves.
To learn more, consider attending one of two upcoming informational meetings:
• 6:30-8 p.m. Nov. 16 at Linnton Community Center, 10614 N.W. St. Helens Road in Portland.
• 9:30-11 a.m. Dec. 7 at the Multnomah Building, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. in Portland.