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Air quality alert issued for smoky conditions

A crackling fireplace can be a nice touch at this time of year.

But too many smoking chimneys burning can be hazardous to your health.

An air quality bulletin has been issued for Langley, Surrey, Richmond, New West, Pitt Meadows and Delta due to smoky conditions expected this weekend.

Intermittent high concentrations of fine particulate are predicted from smoke sources such as wood stoves, fireplaces and open burning, according to the bulletin.

Overnight temperature inversions and light winds are tending to trap particulate at low levels.

People who have respiratory conditions, chronic medical conditions or are sensitive to wood smoke may wish to reduce their physical activity until the advisory is lifted, which could come by Tuesday with an expected change in the weather.

The bulletin issued by Metro Vancouver, the environment ministry, Environment Canada and the Fraser Valley Regional District says the smoky conditions could spread to affect other Lower Mainland municipalities as well. Real time information on local air quality can be found at www.airmap.ca or bcairquality.ca.

People with fireplaces and wood stoves are being urged not to use them unless they're the home's primary source of heat.

If they are used, smoke emissions can be minimized by:

  • Burning only clean, seasoned wood.
  • Building small hot fires and avoid smouldering.
  • Regular chimney sweeping.

Older wood burning stoves can also be exchanged for efficient cleaner-burning models through the regional wood stove exchange programs that offer a $250 rebate.

Metro Vancouver gets about 90 wood smoke complaints a year pressuring it to crack down on homes whose fireplaces pollute local neighbourhoods.

Officials say enforcement is an option in severe cases, but it's tough to prove a specific home is causing pollution. (Metro has recommendations on its website for documenting wood smoke violators.)

"A ban is the only way," said Vancouver resident Vicki Morell, who says just one fireplace burning can pollute an entire neighbourhood.

"There's no way Vancouver can be the greenest city in the world as long as there's fireplaces burning wood."

Metro has estimated before that residential wood burning accounts for more fine particulate across the region than all major industries combined. Air quality planners believe it's a significant risk to public health.

But Morell says politicians on the Metro board refuse to take tougher action, likely because they fear the wrath of fireplace owners in their cities.

"They don't want to go there," she said. "They don't want to accept what they need to do, which is to ban it."

As of 2010, one third of Metro homes had a wood-burning fireplace or stove. Many of them aren't burned for heat but just for ambiance, entertainment or to burn off garbage, which can release more toxins than just wood.

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