Neighbors' Fireplace & Outdoor Grill Smoke

Parent Q&A

  • My poor asthmatic, elderly aunt lives in Kensington and contributes so much to the world. New neighbors from the Midwest recently moved into the house behind her. They are constantly grilling meat, during this stressful time of pandemic and during the hazardous smoke events. She has asked them to stop, as it fills her house with gas and smoke, coming directly into the vents. They continue to do it. Please, if anyone knows a lawyer she can contact to get a cease and desist order (for the spare the air days when it is illegal to be grilling outdoors) that would be greatly appreciated. I am afraid it will sicken her and could eventually cause her to be hospitalized. Also, I am wondering if Berkeley Parents are doing much grilling anymore considering the absolute proof positive of carcinogens created by this form of cooking? Thank you for any information!

    Spare the Air Day burn bans unfortunately do not include outdoor fires for cooking, so it is not illegal for them to be grilling then. Not sure there is a huge amount she can do legally--the least expensive option might be to gift them a gas grill and ask that they please use this instead of the charcoal. This will reduce the smoke considerably, and is also the Air District's recommendation for those who want to grill on Spare the Air Days, so she could frame it that way as well. (Gas grills can also address many of the health concerns around grilling, which are tied not to grilling itself but to burning/charring food--something that can happen with both indoor and outdoor cooking.)

    Grilling is fine during spare the air days (unless they're doing it with a wood fire). Perhaps in addition to the suggestion already offered she could get an air purifier (or a couple) if she doesn't already have? Those have been really helpful to us during the past few months and they can really increase air quality indoors (as well as help eliminate odors). 

    I am really sorry that your aunt is coping with a situation that distresses her. All fires should be banned on Spare the Air days, but unfortunately they are not. We never grill on those days and we take the fires here very seriously. But we LOVE to grill and do so all the time, whenever we can - still super popular with our family and all friends, cancer or no ;-) Cheers.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Excessive Wood Smoke from Neighbors

March 2016

One of our neighbors has been burning wood in his fireplace what seems like almost 24/7 all winter, even on warm days. It smells like a campfire inside our house, even with the windows closed, and sometimes there's a visible pall in the air outside. Many evenings I have a sore throat by the time I go to bed. Based on our limited past interactions, I don't think he'd take it well if we asked him to burn less - do we have any options? Reporting him to the air quality board sounds like it will just result in a letter with helpful tips for maintaining a clean chimney - which he'd probably toss in the fireplace. Smoked Out

If you neighbor is burning on a spare the air day, you can report him. However, from November to February of 2016 we have only had ONE spare the air day. He should be burning good clean wood, no garbage or plastic, but I don't know how you can enforce that. He is not breaking the law by using his fireplace. For all you know, he may have an EPA certified wood stove, like many of us do. Have you thought about buying an air purifier for your house? That would probably be a much easier solution. Even if your neighbor is not burning wood, you would probably benefit from a purifier. EPA certified wood stove user

I think it would be a good idea to talk to your neighbor. You say you have only had limited interactions, yet you assume he won't take it well if you ask him to burn less. Maybe you should stop assuming how he will respond, have more interactions and give him the benefit of the doubt. Express something you like about having him as a neighbor, let him know what your concerns are, keeping it blame-free and concentrate on your own experience and feelings about it (concern about your health, frustration over the smell in your house) and see where it goes. Don't say that he's DOING anything TO YOU, just express how the smoke AFFECTS YOU. Have a little faith in communication and neighborly cooperation... Just talk, don't assume.

Possibly the only thing you can do is report him on spare the air days, unless it's his only source of heat (which is pretty rare in the Bay Area). Perhaps keep your house closed up as much as possible. I love that smell and would welcome it, but I realize that it is very irritating for some! Kitty

There is not much you can do. You could try doing mediation with them. Or you can try reporting them if they burn on spare the air days. I think there is an actual fine for burning when it is not allowed. Anon

Nothing you can do unless it's on a ''no burn day'' then you can take a pictures and call the fire department.

We have four neighbors who do the same. Each on emits enough smoke out the entire neighborhood stinks. When weather conditions are just right the smoke hugs the ground and the entire neighborhood and businesses have that campfire smell. All of the neighbors tell me they do it to be ''green''. And to save on their energy bills. While the neighborhood smells like a campfire their homes do not. They tell me is they never let the fire go out so they are always burning something day and night. The reason it smokes so much is they reduces the amount of air/oxygen which starves the fire and allows them to save on fuel. The side affect of saving on fuel is it spews out as much smoke as possible.

Not sure if anyone has mentioned it but wood smoke has a lot of particulate matter which causes health problems. I know I get a sore throat that can last for days. Other option you have is the call the EPA US Environmental Protection Agency and report him as a gross polluter. Something I learned learn recently is if they are burning coal the smoke contains radioactive elements. Other thing you can do is get a law passed in your city. I know some cities already have such laws. Just depends on where you live. ANON

I have an EPA wood stove insert and it is my main source of heat.This year we have had one no-burn day all winter. While you cannot control your neighbor, maybe you could circulate some fliers about WHAT to burn. I burn clean hard wood that I purchase. What is bad is papers, anything with paint, and certainly not garbage. It does make a difference. Maybe you could circulate a flier from the Air Quality Control that recommends WHAT to burn for clean air. Also I recommend an indoor air purifier. They are highly recommended for all sorts of reasons, not just wood smoke. Susan

Neighbors constantly burning trash in fireplace

May 2013

Our immediate neighbors do not have trash service and do not have cans in their yard. Instead, they just burn all their trash in their fireplace. To make it worse, we also suspect they are manufacturing meth (they have been reported), so some of the burns are especially toxic. The smells are awful and affecting several neighbors on our block, a few who have asthma. I know backyard burning is illegal, so I imagine this must be prohibited too (aside from the meth issue, which is clearly illegal). Does anyone know a resource to call or have any advice? For various reasons, we can't really talk to them. We are in Contra Costa County. anon

Below is a link to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's (BAAQMD's) Wood Smoke Complaint Form. Per the instructions, this form should also be used to complain about the burning of trash: I hope they can help you. Anon

Call the Fire Marshal immediately - and let him or her know you think hazardous waste is being burned at that address. Their job is looking into exactly these kinds of dangerous situations. Call *every single time* you see smoke or smell it, and don't be afraid to be a pest. You are right - if they are manufacturing meth it is very dangerous and an environmental hazard. If they are, in fact, burning the waste in the fireplace, they could very likely wind up having the Fire Marshal red-tag the house as uninhabitable. Sue

I checked with someone who works with these kinds of issues at the Contra Costa Health Department and he said call the air district complaint line at 1 800-334-6367. Jaime

Call Bay Area air quality management once per day, every time it happens, and have the neighbors call too. Air

If you had a cordial relationship with these neighbors, it might be possible to just ask them about it. But it seems that this is not a good option. The regional air quality agency cares deeply about wood being burned in fireplaces on ''spare the air'' days, and I believe they have a complaint hotline. This might be a way to bring pressure to bear. Anonymous

Neighbor's fireplace is smoking up the neighborhood

July 2007

Our neighbor across the street lights a fire in his fireplace every evening, without fail -- even on the hottest days of the year. Since it's summer, we want to keep our windows open, but then our house fills with the smell of smoke. It's annoying, and I'm kind of worried that breathing all this smoke every day can't be good for our lungs.

We don't feel we can discuss this fruitfully with our neighbor. He's kind of weird, and we're not on friendly terms (though we're not enemies either -- we just don't interact at all). He tends to hold himself aloof, and in 15 years of him living across the street from my husband, the one and only interaction they've ever had was a negative one.

It doesn't seem appropriate for him to be polluting the neighborhood like this on a regular basis. Are there health concerns in breathing so much smoke? Is this just one of those little neighborhood annoyances that we'll have to put up with, or do we have some recourse? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Smoke getting in my eyes

You say ''It doesn't seem appropriate for him to be polluting the neighborhood like this on a regular basis. Are there health concerns in breathing so much smoke?''

In a word, YES. An alarmist but scientific site is:

My spouse is a combustion chemist working with particulates and free radicals, and when we remodeled our house, he insisted we remove all three fireplaces. It's dangerous for people AND the environment to create smoke by burning wood. It should be outlawed. -- Put That in Your Prius and Smoke It