‘Fireplace czar’ explains county’s rules limiting wood fires

Don’t be a scofflaw and further pollute the air in outer East Portland with ‘recreational fires’ on ‘Red Days’. Learn about it …

Jonathan Cruz, of Multnomah County Environmental Health Services’ Wood Smoke Program, laid out county’s new restrictions on wood and debris burning to reduce air pollution, in a talk at January 4th neighborhood meeting.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Most area residents have known for years that backyard burning of trash or yard debris, such as leaves, has been illegal – even though smoke plumes are frequently seen arising from outer East Portland residences.

However, you may not be aware of a recent Multnomah County ordinance, instituted two years ago, which also forbids burning wood in stoves, furnaces, fireplaces – and even backyard fire pits – on designated “Red Days”, when overall particulate pollution is high.

Jonathan Cruz highlights health dangers of “recreational” wood burning.

“The main message that I talk about is simple: Wood smoke is a health hazard,” Jonathan Cruz, of Multnomah County Environmental Health Services’ Wood Smoke Program, told East Portland News just before appearing at an east Portland neighborhood association meeting on January 4.

He pointed out that smoke from wood-burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles that lodge in the lungs of humans and animals. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic air pollutants including:

  • benzene
  • formaldehyde
  • acrolein
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)


“I educate neighbors about how smoke not only impacts your physical body, but it also affects the entire community in the area,” Cruz continued. “In February, 2020, the Multnomah County Commissioners extended the wood burning ban ordinance to being year-around. That is, we post daily advisories about whether it’s okay to burn wood.”

When we asked how this ordinance is being enforced, Cruz replied, “We do have enforcement of this ordinance, but it’s only on ‘Red Days’ – days when air quality is the worst.”

Although there are penalties for burning violations, based on the statistics provided by Jonathan Cruz, they are not vigorously enforced.

Penalties and Warnings
Between March 2, 2021 and March 1, 2022, Multnomah County received a total of 288 wood smoke information requests and complaints from community members. (203 of these were between October 1, 2021 and March 1, 2022).

Interestingly, according to data provided by Multnomah County, enforcement of this ordinance is negligible, according to the Seasonal Enforcement Statistics for the 2021-2022 season: 

Type Total
Exemption Requests: 50
Violations issued, first offense*: 03
Violations issued, second offense: 00
Violations observed, third offense: 00
Site Visits**: 00

 * A violation complaint occurs when wood smoke is reported on a “Red” or “no-burn” day. No violation fees were issued, as there were no repeat offenses.

** A site visit occurs when multiple complaints or violations are reported on a “Red” day.

“Nevertheless, we’re hoping that people will get an understanding of the health risks caused by wood smoke, and then will make good choices for their health and for the health of others,” Cruz told East Portland News. “A real problem is caused by burning wood for recreation, and we find that takes place in the more affluent areas.”

Jonathan Cruz answers questions about wood burning fires.

Questions, and answers
About modern “smokeless” fire logs, he spoke up against them; there are still burn products in the air. When queried about switching to burning “pressed logs” of compacted materials, Cruz stated, “The fact is this you just don’t know what they’re made out of. It could be wood chips, sawdust, bark, or other things that emit pollutants.”

We asked if inserts and new woodstoves reduce smoke pollution; Cruz said, “Woodstoves, even with different types of filters, have not been verified to meet the manufacturers’ own specifications for reducing smoke-containing particulates.”

By the way, this ordinance does not apply to cooking food using charcoal grills, smokers or wood fired ovens, Cruz asserted.

Bust a wood burner
First of all, before you burn, or complain about a neighbor’s “recreational wood burning”, check online on the pollution level at their official website: CLICK HERE to open it. Or you can call 503-988-0035 to find out; updates are made by 11 a.m. daily.

Then …

  • Send complaints via email to – woodsmokecomplaints@multco.us
  • If you see a fire that is unsafe and still burning, call 911
  • If a fire is an unsafe area and has the potential to catch other things on fire, call the non-emergency number –503-823-3333
  • Report dangerous fires at homeless camps


“Shared Air, Shared Action” recommendations:

  • Don’t burn on the worst air quality days
  • “Burn better”: Burn clean and dry wood
  • Spread the word; educate others about the problem, and how to protect health
  • Choose other ways to stay warm – such as heat pumps, or electric heat
  • Avoid using methane gas in your home
  • Insulate and winterize your home
  • Buy portable air filter units to keep the air in your home clean, and change furnace filters regularly
  • Advocate more action for clean air in our airshed


So, in summary of the presentation, while a cheery fire is fun on a cool evening, consider the effect it could have on your health and that of your neighbors.

© 2023 David F. Ashton  ~ East Portland News™

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