For many households, wood burning fireplaces are a beloved tradition during the colder months. However, concerns around air pollution have led some California cities and counties to impose restrictions.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Wood burning fireplaces are not completely illegal statewide, but many regions of California have enacted bans and limitations on their use.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine the complex patchwork of laws in California regarding wood burning fireplaces. We’ll look at the air quality and environmental issues that led to regulation, where and how their use is limited, and what exceptions may apply.

By the end, you’ll understand the legal status of wood burning fireplaces throughout the state so you can enjoy the ambiance while remaining compliant.

Background on Air Quality Concerns and Wood Smoke

When it comes to wood burning fireplaces, one of the main concerns is the impact they have on air quality. Wood smoke contains a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds.

These pollutants can have detrimental effects on both human health and the environment.

Air pollution in California
Polluted air in California. Image source:

Particulate Matter and Health Risks

Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of tiny particles and liquid droplets found in the air. These particles can be as small as 2.5 micrometers or less, which is smaller than the width of a human hair.

When inhaled, these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, causing a range of health problems.

Wood smoke is a significant source of PM, especially in areas where wood burning is prevalent. The combustion process in wood burning fireplaces releases fine particles, known as PM2.5, which are particularly harmful to human health.

Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems, and an increased risk of premature death.

Did you know? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to high levels of PM2.5 can aggravate asthma, increase the risk of heart attacks, and contribute to the development of chronic bronchitis.

Wood Smoke Contributions

Wood burning fireplaces are a significant contributor to wood smoke pollution, especially in areas with a high concentration of residential wood burning. In fact, residential wood burning can be responsible for a significant portion of PM pollution in certain regions.

According to a study published in the February 2020 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, wood smoke generated from residential burning has emerged as the predominant contributor to wintertime PM2.5 emissions in the Sacramento, California region.

This source alone is responsible for over 50 percent of the total direct wintertime PM2.5 emissions recorded in the area. The findings underscore the significance of addressing residential wood burning practices to mitigate the substantial impact on local air quality during the colder months.

Furthermore, wood smoke is not only a local concern but also a regional and even a global issue. The pollutants released from wood burning can travel long distances through the atmosphere, affecting air quality in neighboring communities and even contributing to climate change.

Fun fact: Wood smoke contains many of the same harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke, including benzene, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Given the significant impact of wood smoke on air quality and human health, it is essential for policymakers to implement regulations to mitigate these concerns. In the following sections, we will examine the specific regulations regarding wood burning fireplaces in California and whether they are illegal in the state.

Statewide Regulations from the EPA

When it comes to wood burning fireplaces, California has implemented strict regulations to protect air quality and reduce pollution. These regulations are primarily governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

Let’s take a closer look at the statewide regulations set by these organizations.

Federal Standards

The EPA has established federal standards for wood burning appliances to minimize emissions and promote cleaner burning practices. These standards apply to both residential and commercial wood burning fireplaces.

It is important to note that the regulations vary depending on the type of wood burning appliance in use.

For example, the EPA’s regulations require that all newly manufactured wood stoves meet specific emission limits, which are measured in grams per hour (g/h). These limits have been gradually tightened over the years to ensure that newer models are more efficient and produce fewer pollutants.

In addition, older, non-compliant wood stoves may need to be replaced or upgraded to meet the EPA’s standards.

The EPA also encourages the use of certified wood burning appliances, such as EPA-certified wood stoves and fireplace inserts. These appliances have been independently tested and certified to meet the EPA’s emission standards.

They are designed to burn wood more efficiently, resulting in reduced emissions and increased heat output.

CARB Requirements

In addition to the federal standards set by the EPA, California has its own specific requirements regulated by the CARB. The CARB’s regulations aim to further reduce air pollution and improve air quality in the state.

The Woodsmoke Reduction Program, managed by CARB as directed by Senate Bill 563, is extending a helping hand to homeowners. This initiative provides financial incentives to swap out outdated, inefficient, and environmentally unfriendly wood stoves, inserts, or fireplaces.

Californians relying on uncertified wood-burning gear or using fireplaces as their main heat source can qualify for incentives to upgrade to cleaner, more efficient heating devices. It’s a move towards greener warmth and improved air quality.

It is important for residents of California to be aware of these efforts and comply with them to help protect the environment and promote better air quality. By following the EPA’s and CARB’s guidelines, individuals can enjoy the warmth and ambiance of a wood burning fireplace while minimizing their impact on the environment.

Local Ordinances for High-Risk Regions

Wood burning fireplaces are subject to various regulations in California, with local ordinances in place to address the unique challenges faced by high-risk regions. These regulations aim to reduce air pollution, promote public health, and mitigate the risk of wildfires.

Let’s explore some of the local ordinances in different areas of California.

Bay Area Regulations

The Bay Area, known for its dense population and proximity to wildfire-prone areas, has implemented strict regulations on wood burning fireplaces. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has established “Spare the Air” days during winter months when burning wood is prohibited.


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Violators can face fines up to several hundred dollars. The BAAQMD also offers incentives for residents to switch to cleaner heating alternatives, such as gas or electric fireplaces.

Restrictions in Southern California

In Southern California, where the risk of wildfires is a constant concern, local ordinances have been put in place to restrict the use of wood burning fireplaces.

In a bid to address air quality concerns, The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has implemented a noteworthy regulation. This regulation now prohibits the installation of permanent indoor and outdoor wood-burning devices like fireplaces and stoves in new housing developments.

Other Problem Areas

While the Bay Area and Southern California have some of the strictest regulations, other problem areas in the state also have local ordinances for wood burning fireplaces. For example, Lake Tahoe, a popular tourist destination known for its pristine environment, has implemented regulations to protect air quality and reduce the risk of wildfires.

Within the boundaries of the City of South Lake Tahoe, open burning is strictly prohibited. However, there are specific exemptions to this rule. Gas fireplaces and BBQs utilizing either LP or natural gas are the only exceptions permitted within these limits.

It’s important to check with the local authorities in your area to understand the specific regulations and restrictions that may apply to wood burning fireplaces. By complying with these regulations, residents can contribute to improving air quality, protecting public health, and reducing the risk of wildfires in high-risk regions.

Exemptions for Compliant and Certified Fireplaces

EPA-Certified Wood Stoves

In California, wood burning fireplaces have faced strict regulations due to their negative impact on air quality. However, there are exemptions for compliant and certified fireplaces, such as EPA-certified wood stoves.

These stoves have been tested and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their efficiency and low emissions.

EPA-certified wood stoves are designed to burn wood more efficiently, reducing the amount of smoke and pollutants released into the air. They are equipped with advanced combustion technology and catalytic converters, which help to minimize emissions.

These stoves also have a higher heat output, ensuring that you can still enjoy the warmth and ambiance of a wood-burning fireplace while complying with the regulations.

It is important to note that not all wood stoves are EPA-certified. If you are considering installing a wood stove in your home, make sure to choose one that is EPA-certified to ensure compliance with California’s regulations.


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Natural Gas Conversions

Another exemption for wood burning fireplaces in California is through natural gas conversions. Many homeowners have opted to convert their wood burning fireplaces to natural gas, as it is a cleaner and more environmentally friendly option.

However, it is worth noting that California is actively pursuing a significant policy shift, aiming to become the inaugural state to prohibit the utilization of gas furnaces and appliances. This transition is projected to be implemented by the year 2030.

Converting a wood burning fireplace to natural gas involves installing a gas line and burner system. This allows you to enjoy the warmth and ambiance of a fireplace without the emissions and air quality concerns associated with burning wood.

Natural gas fireplaces also offer the convenience of instant ignition and adjustable heat settings.

It is important to hire a licensed professional to handle the conversion process to ensure safety and compliance with building codes. They will ensure that the gas line and burner system are installed properly and meet all regulatory requirements.

By converting your wood burning fireplace to natural gas, you can still enjoy the cozy atmosphere without worrying about the legalities or environmental impact of burning wood.


While wood burning fireplaces remain legal in many parts of California, their use is becoming increasingly regulated due to air pollution concerns. Understanding the complex web of federal, state, and local laws is key for homeowners wishing to stay compliant.

Fortunately, there are EPA-certified models and natural gas conversions available so residents can still enjoy fireplaces responsibly. With proper precautions, this beloved tradition can persist despite tightening regulations across the state.

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