In Berkeley, where there's wood smoke, there's ire

March 20, 2002

Hoping to reduce airborne pollution in Berkeley, Calif., the city's council has banned not only the installation of wood-burning fireplaces in new homes and buildings, but levied tight emissions restrictions on new wood-fired pizza ovens and grills installed in restaurants.

Berkeley is the latest of more than a half-dozen San Francisco Bay Area communities enacting laws to curtail wood burning. The action stems from Bay Area Air Quality Management District studies that, according to the Los Angeles Times, estimate wood smoke accounts for 30 to 80 percent of the region's winter particulate pollution.

Evelyne Slomon, author of Pizza Book: Everything There Is to Know About the World's Greatest Pie, and a Berkeley resident, calls the new restrictions on wood-fired restaurant equipment "ludicrous," because residential fire places and wood-fired ovens aren't comparable.

"It's like a crematorium inside a wood-burning oven; the temperature reaches 1,000 degrees at the top (of the cooking chamber)," said Slomon, a consultant to pizzerias, who also has a wood-fired oven in her Berkeley home. "A fireplace or wood stove has more particle emissions because it doesn't burn the wood completely like it does as in a wood-fired oven. It's silly to even compare them."

Slomon, who co-owns Nizza La Bella, an Italian-French fusion restaurant in Albany, Calif., which is next door to Berkeley, said while there are several nearby communities that have restricted wood-burning, others such as Oakland and Kensington don't. Limiting the smoke that will travel between those areas will be impossible, and therefore, largely defeats the purpose of the law.

"How are you going to stop that? Unless everyone limits it, it's not going to work," she said. "And it's not like there are a ton of wood-fired ovens in Berkeley restaurants already, or that a lot of restaurants will start up using them either."

Berkeley restaurants like the famed Chez Panise, which has a wood-fired grill and oven, won't be affected by the law, because their equipment was installed prior to its enactment. Still, Alice Waters, the legendary chef-owner of Chez Panisse, is against the law.

"I am totally opposed," Waters told the Times. Waters had installed pollution-filtering equipment on Chez Panise's grill and oven years ago. However, the filtration devices lowered the performance of both the grill and oven, and thus were removed. "We've had a fundamental connection between fire and food since the beginning of time. Until we stop driving cars, I'd rather live in a world with wood-burning ovens."

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