Federal transportation funding is on the line if the Bay Area doesn't shape up. The problem is nearly invisible soot in the area that can lead not only to asthma, but also to bronchitis and heart disease.
There are multiple sources that create fine particulate matter, including dust whipped up by traffic on the freeway, diesel engines, such as the ones that power rigs that haul cargo containers to and from ships at the Port of Oakland and wood-burning fireplaces.
"In the winter months, 30 to 40 percent of our air pollution problem comes from wood smoke, and so if we can reduce that significantly, we will make great strides at reducing the overall level of pollution that we have in the winter months for particulates," said Lisa Fasan from Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
A network of monitoring stations is keeping tabs on fine particles in the air. They are operated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
When the levels are expected to exceed the federal standard, a winter-time "Spare the Air" day is declared, making wood fires illegal. That has happened five times in the past two months.
Mark Ross is a member of the Air Quality Board. He says infractions are reported by neighbors.
"We've had hundreds and hundreds of calls in the first few Spare the Air nights that we've had, and unfortunately, it doesn't seem savory that we have neighbors calling in on neighbors, but it's only way we can know that something's going on," said Ross.
Consumers can burn natural gas fireplaces at any time, which has sparked an interest in inserts as well as free-standing stoves.
"I've done it myself, and yeah, it's a big bite at the beginning, but I'll tell you what, last night it was so nice just flicking a switch, and you don't have to haul wood in, and it does a much better job than wood ever did," said Ross.
The Bay Area has three years to implement a plan to reduce fine particles. However, the Air Quality Management District is actively working on a comprehensive plan it hopes to adopt by next fall.
"It's a matter if we're over the standard, that's unhealthy. We need to get under the standard to keep our air within the healthy, breathable range," said Fasano.
There's an easy way to check if a winter-time "Spare the Air" day has been declared before you burn a fire. There's a widget you can put on your own computer, provided by the Air Quality Management District.