Impact of “Burning Issue”

“A Burning Issue” was published over four days starting May 13, 2010, in the Chico Enterprise-Record and the Oroville Mercury Register, MediaNews dailies at the northern reach of the Central Valley. The 29-story series scrutinized one of the region’s most serious health issues: how smoke from wood-burning stoves can affect human health, and what can be done about it.

The project included a comprehensive look at the science linking stove smoke with asthma, chronic lung disease and heart problems. It chronicled the state’s fragmented regulatory approach to controlling wood smoke pollution, with the state air board delegating stove smoke to beleaguered local air districts.

In 2011, the City of Chico decided to start regulating the use of wood-burning stoves to help rein in the air pollution that hangs over the city during winter months, the Chico Enterprise-Record reported.

The center’s helped pave the way for the new Chico rules, said W. James Wagoner, air pollution control officer for Butte County, where Chico is located.

“People remember the series,” Wagoner said this week. The stories, he said, were “a tremendous public service.”

The Butte County air board declined to endorse rules similar to those approved in Chico. Still, the district has seen a significant decline in winter pollution as residents people voluntarily reduce the use of stoves when air quality is poor, Wagoner said.

The project significantly increased public understanding of the issue, according to local leaders, including Butte County Air Quality Management District officer Jim Wagoner and planner Gail Williams.

It also brought to light the failure of the California Energy Commission to consider wood stoves an energy source—or to use any of its $225 million in federal stimulus money to help state residents buy new, less polluting wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. In contrast, the series reported, Oregon’s energy and environmental agencies have teamed up to win $2 million for stove trade-outs. That news led to talks between local air districts and the commission staff to find ways to free up funds for cleaner stoves, said commission advisor Sarah Michael.

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