The booming popularity of outdoor kitchens among homeowners in the San Francisco Bay Area has an increasing number of their neighbors coughing and hacking from the smoke, leading air-quality officials to consider tightening rules on wood-burning pizza ovens and smokers.
Residents like Noelle Robbins of Alameda are calling complaint lines and public officials to urge limits on backyard grilling and barbecuing.
For Robbins, a 21-year resident of her neighborhood, trouble began last spring when a neighbor two doors down set up a meat smoker in his backyard. He would leave the smoker going six to eight hours, after dark.
“We would wake up 11:30 at night with our bedroom full of smoke. And it would happen all night long,” Robbins, 62, said. “Eyes burning, chest burning. We'd be trapped.”
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District enforces air standards for the nine counties and their 7.5 million people. Any new restrictions would apply region wide. The Bay Area currently observes “Spare the Air” days when wood burning is restricted.
But this past week, air-quality district marked a record-tying 11 consecutive days in which smog-trapping conditions forced it to ban most wood burning. On three of those days, the air was so sooty that it fell short of federals standards.
With dry weather patterns keeping air-clearing storms from sweeping through, “any small increase in particulate matter is throwing us over the edge” of federal clean-air standards, said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the air-quality district.
The air problem is visible on those days, as a gray haze envelops the hills surrounding the Bay. Cold, calm and dry spells during Bay Area winters allow wood smoke to build up, creating conditions some experts and asthma sufferers feel can be as bad as secondhand cigarette smoke.
A 2012 study of pollution in residential neighborhoods by the University of California, Davis found grilling with wood-derived charcoal created some of the most toxic smoke of all sources.
In February and March, air-quality officials will hold public meetings on tightening the few existing exemptions for those days when wood-burning is banned. The exemptions include: letting people use wood fireplaces if that is the sole heating source and allowing homes and businesses to burn wood for all kinds of cooking, indoor or out.
Fines start at $100 for first-time offenders, and can climb to $500 and above for repeat offenders.
Around the country, cooking and home-improvement shows on television have increased the popularity of outdoor kitchens, including wood-fired pizza ovens, smokers and grills.
In 2013, a survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects of its members identified outdoor fire pits, grills and outdoor kitchens and living areas in general as the hottest trends among their clients.
Smokers “are pretty darn popular,” confirmed Zach Dilgard, an employee at Barbeques Galore, which sells outdoor grills in Walnut Creek, about 16 miles east of Oakland.
Gas grills are most popular because of their ease of use, but even with those, backyard cooks like to add charcoal or wood for taste, Dilgard said. “You tend to get a little more flavor” with wood and charcoal fires, he said. “Gas doesn't provide any flavor.”
Even with just a little wood-fired grilling in a neighborhood, backyard trees can trap smoke from outdoor cooking, making surrounding neighbors miserable, Fasano said.
Berkeley and some other Bay Area cities restricted use of wood-burning pizza ovens a decade or more ago out of concern for air pollution. Nationally, however, federal and local agencies that have tightened wood-burning rules have tended to allow wood-fired cooking.
Decisions on whether to toughen up the rules on backyard smokers and other wood-fired cooking in the Bay Area will come after the public meetings, Fasano said.
For Dilgard, his home smoker will burn on, new rules or no.
“If I have a glorious piece of meat for the smoker and it happened to be a Spare-the-Air day, I promise you, I'll still be cooking it in the smoker,” Dilgard said. “What am I supposed to say — 'We're going to McDonald's instead, guys?'”