Self-policing and picking our battles

I made an innocuous post on Facebook this week after the South Coast Air Quality Management District asked residents to not burn wood in fireplaces on Tuesday and Wednesday because of a high concentration of fine particle air pollution.

Considering we live in a warm climate—even our coldest days don’t compare to those on the east coast—you’d think this request would be met with nonchalance. Not so.

Comments and emails began rolling in not long after the story was shared. “Who monitors this and what would the fine be?” and “Does this apply to older homes with no other source of heat?” were common themes.

COURIER staff has grown accustomed to questions and comments when a story is written. We welcome the feedback, because it means people are reading the paper.

However, it’s the current tone of inquiry that has me confused. When the post was made, we included what we thought was pertinent information—how long the no-burn was to last, who issued it and why. We opted not to include the seven-page explanation of the law provided to us by the SCAQMD. Again, it’s warm out, the air quality is bad and we’ve been asked to not burn fires. It seemed pretty straightforward.

Section (h) on page seven of the SCAQMD rule book states:

“Penalties. Any person that violates the provisions of subdivision (e) is subject to the following: (1) For first-time violators during each wood-burning season, completion of a wood smoke awareness course that has been approved by the Executive Officer or payment of a penalty of $50;

(2) For second-time violators during each wood-burning season, payment of a penalty of $150 or submission of proof of installation of a dedicated gaseous-fueled fireplace within 90 days after receiving the Notice of Violation; and

(3) For third-time violators during each wood-burning season, payment of a penalty of $500 or implementation of an environmentally beneficial project as derived through the mutual settlement process.”

The rule book outlines provisions for everything from historic preservation overlay zones to homes with a property line above 3000 feet to manufactured logs, wood-based fuel for cooking, commercial smokers, rubber products, masonry heaters and the like. It’s long and complicated and doesn’t make for exciting reading, so our thought was to just get the information out there and let residents know the air quality was bad on Tuesday.

In a state where regulations have markedly improved air quality, the request by the SCAQMD seemed reasonable. For the no-burn request to be met with such rebellion raises the question: What do we expect the outcome to be if residents chafe at every edict?

One resident emailed me to say that implementation is totally citizen-driven. Apparently, they have a neighbor who burns stuff in his fireplace every day, including during summers. After bringing SCAQMD’s request to his attention, the neighbor called the Claremont Police Department, who reportedly told him, “Go ahead and burn, it’s fine by city code.” A second resident called in to say that someone at the city’s code enforcement office “laughed” when he asked if they would monitor rule-breakers. The lesson here seems to be—if a law doesn’t fall under your purview, it’s a free-for-all.

It’s baffling that a request to not burn a fire on a couple of warm days in Claremont can now threaten our autonomy. Political correctness is now an affront to our civil liberties. We should be able to do or say as we please without worrying about other people, right?

As the mother of two young boys on the brink of adulthood, I’ve taken a macro-approach to parenting. I avoid nitpicking about eating enough vegetables and don’t hammer them when they fail to make their beds. Instead, we focus on broader themes in humanity: try not to fixate on material things; respect each other’s privacy and feelings; show appreciation when someone helps you and return the favor when you can; show up, participate and celebrate. These are the same principles my parents instilled in my sisters and brother growing up.

My mom and I were discussing President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. His presidency hasn’t been perfect, we agreed, but we rejoiced in the realization that—for the first time in a very, very long time—we have a president who is working to create an identity for America. An identity that is inclusionary and thoughtful, and aims to inspire citizens to care about the condition of each other’s lives. It’s a remarkable endeavor and one I hope we can all get behind, regardless of party affiliation.

Questioning can be worthwhile, and protecting our rights is certainly of utmost importance, but where do we draw the line? It’s been said time and again that the true test of a person’s character is what they do when no one is watching. What’s my take-away in all of this? If you don’t have all the answers, and it helps mankind, err on the side of kindness and decency.

—Kathryn Dunn


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