Christmas Eve wood-burning ban hits Phoenix area

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PHOENIX (AP) — The brown haze of pollution that hangs over metropolitan Phoenix has led officials to deliver an unwelcome holiday message: Don't use your wood-burning fireplace or you could get ticketed.

Environmental regulators barred people in Maricopa County from starting wood-burning fires on Wednesday because pollution levels are expected to exceed federal health standards. No-burn restrictions are likely to be extended into Christmas Day and over the New Year's holiday, when smoke from fireworks is expected to worsen air quality.

A small team of inspectors will drive around neighborhoods to seek out violators and respond to complaints, focusing on high-pollution areas in south and west Phoenix where older homes still use wood-burning fireplaces and people start holiday bonfires. First-time violators will receive a warning, while repeat offenders can face fines of up to $250 per violation.

"Our objective is not to fine people. We'd rather not," said Bob Huhn, a spokesman for county environmental regulators. "The idea of this campaign is to increase awareness — why it's so important not to burn on no-burn days."

Smoke and soot from wood-burning pose risks to people with asthma and other respiratory ailments. The county also could face fines, lose funding from Washington and require tougher regulations — such as having more no-burn days — if it's found to violate federal health standards.

The county came close to exceeding such standards over the 2011 and 2012 holidays, though it saw some improvements last year, Huhn said.

Regulators face plenty of challenges in confronting illegal burning. There are five inspectors to regulate a metro area with 4 million people, and many people in Phoenix simply aren't aware or don't care about the restrictions.

Still, Huhn said a campaign to raise awareness of illegal burning is changing people's behavior. Thirty-three notices of violation were issued last year, up from 26 in the previous year.

No-burn restrictions are ordered when stagnant air and winter inversions trap pollution close to the ground. The restrictions include bans on burning wood in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits and other patio products. Gas and electric heaters are allowed.

Sustained winds and rain could break up the pollution, but the National Weather Service says no such weather is in sight for metro Phoenix.

In the coming days, the metro area is expected to be dry with light winds, high temperatures of about 60 degrees and lows in the low-40s.

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