SIDE STREETS: Smoke pouring from neighbor's chimney leads to burning question

BILL VOGRIN Updated: October 9, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: October 9, 2012

Luanne Wiley is dreading the onset of winter.

Instead of looking forward to crisp mornings, crystal snowflakes blowing about and the sight of Pikes Peak covered in white powder, Wiley associates winter with smoke.

Thick, black plumes, day and night, billowing from her neighbor’s chimney. Smoke that filters into Wiley’s home, causing her eyes to water, making her nauseated and suffocating her, as she describes.

“Last winter was the worst winter in my entire life in my 35 years in my home,” Wiley said. “I would rather go through chemotherapy and radiation again than go through another winter like that. I couldn’t breathe in my own home.”

Wiley believes her neighbor, Rachel Catt, is heating her home by burning green, wet wood in her stove rather than using dry firewood. Wiley said she has called city, county, state and even federal agencies seeking relief from the smoke.

When she failed to find help, she called me.

So I called neighbors in the area off Nichols Boulevard east of Prospect Street, where Wiley and Catt live. I learned others are glad they don’t live next door to Catt, whose chimney is about 35 feet from Wiley’s back door.

“It’s thick smoke,” said Joan Eurich, who lives across the cul-de-sac. “It looks different than other fireplaces. When it burns . . . it blows directly over Luanne’s house.”

And I called Catt to ask about the stove.

“The reason I use my stove is because of my finances,” she said, explaining she saves $150 a month by not using the furnace in her rental home. “It puts out smoke. It’s a fireplace. I don’t think it’s an excess amount of smoke.”

And Catt denies burning green, wet wood or anything else, in the stove.

“The only thing I burn is wood,” she said. “I bought oak and I’ve gone out and get dead wood from the forest. We get a permit. We gather pinon and pine.”

She said she starts her fires with newspaper and kindling, such as bark and sticks. Otherwise, she burns what she finds in the forests during the winter.

“We go out with a chainsaw and cut down wood,” Catt said. “Most of it isn’t standing. It’s on the ground.

“I don’t want to have to wait a year or let it dry out,” she said.

She insists she isn’t using green, wet wood.

I called the El Paso County Health Department to ask about air quality regulations. I learned the county just resumed enforcing state clean air regulations in July. The program was dormant three years after budget cuts forced the agency to slash programs and lay off 37 employees.

Tom Gonzales, the division director for environmental health, said folks burning wood in a home fireplace are exempt from state air quality regulations. Generally.

“If you are using good fuel,” Gonzales said.

What if you are burning green, wet wood collected from the forest?

“You have to comply,” he said.

Specifically, the smoke from your chimney must remain under 20 percent opacity.

That’s the amount of sunlight blocked out by the smoke.

They actually train people in Pueblo to gauge opacity.

“They go to smoke school,” Gonzales said. “Their eyes are calibrated to do this test.”

But before Gonzales sends out the opacity police, he wants his staff to talk to everyone involved.

“Our goal is to problem-solve,” he said. “The first approach we’d like to take is education. We’ll look at what they are burning. If what you are burning is impacting your neighbor, it’s a public health issue.

“Are they burning clean, dry wood? Wet wood is hard to burn and you do get more smoke from it.”

If conversation doesn’t solve the problem, the agency will sic the opacity police on the problem.

“If it really was a nuisance situation, we’d investigate and take it a step further and enforce,” he said.

Gonzales said his staff was looking into Wiley’s complaints and hoped to resolve the situation without any enforcement action.

Personally, I know I’d rather not have a run-in with the opacity police.

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