PHOENIX - Gathering around a fire is a mainstay in many Christmas celebrations. But the tradition could land you a ticket in the Phoenix area this holiday season.
Environmental regulators have barred people in Maricopa County from starting any wood-burning fires on Tuesday and Wednesday because of heightened air pollution levels.
A small team of inspectors will drive around neighborhoods to seek out violators and respond to complaints of wood burning. First-time violators will receive a warning, while repeat offenders can face fines of up to $250 per violation.
Maricopa County Air Quality Department spokesman Bob Huhn said environmental regulators understand that they are asking some people to crimp their traditions on both Christmas Eve and Christmas. But he said the county's air quality is the overriding concern.
"We don't like putting a damper on celebrations at this time of the year," Huhn said. "But we can't ignore the impact it has on residents' health."
Wood burning is expected to cause significant increases in particulate matter on Wednesday, prompting regulators to issue a high pollution advisory for Christmas. Such advisories are issued when particulate matter levels are expected to exceed federal health standards for air quality.
No-burn restrictions are ordered when stagnant air and winter inversions trap pollution close to the ground. The restrictions include bans on burning wood in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits and chimineas. Gas and electric heaters are allowed.
Sustained winds and rain could break up the pollution, but the National Weather Service says no such weather is in sight for metro Phoenix.
Over the next few days, the area is expected to have high temperatures of just over 70 degrees and lows in the mid-40s.
Given the daytime temperatures, environmental regulators hope it's too warm for people to use fireplaces during the day, but believe some people might try to use them at night when the temperatures drop.