Wood Smoke Stories

Polluted air in Humboldt County, California

There’s a widespread popular belief here in Humboldt County, California, that because this is a rural area, we have good air quality. But we don’t. Wood burning is rampant here, and many neighborhoods have unhealthy air quality as a result.

In 1995—nearly 28 years ago as I write this—our North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District (NCUAQMD) put out a draft PM10 attainment plan that stated: “The need for improved wood burning regulations is necessary to protect human health. Wood smoke contains PM10, carbon monoxide, formaldehydes, toxic and carcinogenic compounds…” They compared breathing our smoke-polluted air to smoking cigarettes.

Here it is nearly three decades later, and we are still waiting for those “improved wood burning regulations.”

Our official air quality numbers are based on almost no data: there is one monitor, which is located in the county seat of our geographically large county (3,568 square miles), in a place that does not reflect our wood smoke problem. It only measures PM2.5 one day out of 3.

One of NCUAQMD’s staff members once told me that even if the smoke coming out of a chimney is black and smells of burning plastic they won’t investigate it, because wood burners have a right to privacy.

I was widowed in 2021. My husband’s body was carried out by the mortuary staff in a thick pall of my neighbors’ smoke. It felt like a final insult after years of choking on wood smoke and incidents like his middle-of-the-night ambulance ride to the ER for a severely irregular heartbeat after a neighbor installed a second wood stove and burned both relentlessly 24/7 for a week. After that week, he never had a normal heart rhythm again. Later he had a heart attack during a time when our house was covered with smoke.

Near the end, while my husband was bedridden on hospice with end-stage Parkinson’s after having had a stroke, we couldn’t even open a window for him without filling the room with smoke. This is the charm of rural living in Humboldt County.

There is so little awareness of what a terrible health hazard this is, that the logo (and branding imagery) of the company that provided my husband’s hospice features stylized smoke plumes coming from a house’s chimney. Obviously, nothing says comfort like spending your last debilitated days with no fresh air in an air pollution hotspot.

We thought our house had good air quality when we moved in—it wasn’t musty, unlike many houses here in this coastal area. We never even thought about wood smoke. Our nearest wood-burning neighbors moved in after we did.