Questionable 'Spare the Air' Days Issued

Forecasting is not an exact science, but officials seem to be making a lot of errors.

By Jenna Susko
|  Saturday, Jan 14, 2012  |  Updated 3:38 PM PDT
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NBC Bay Area

Another "Spare the Air" alert was issued for Saturday, bringing the total to 15 "Spare the Air" days this winter, the most since 2006. But how do officials with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District decide when to issue alerts? Are they even accurate? NBC Bay Area uncovered some questionable forecasts made for the "Spare the Air" program.

Another "Spare the Air" alert was issued for Saturday, bringing the total to 15 "Spare the Air" days this winter, the most since 2006. But how do officials with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District decide when to issue alerts? Are they even accurate? NBC Bay Area uncovered some questionable forecasts made for the "Spare the Air" program.

The Air District issues "Spare the Air" days when officials believe the air will be unhealthy. While forecasting is not an exact science, officials are making a lot of errors, which could be affecting your health and costing you money.

On New Year’s Day, a "Spare the Air" alert was declared. Residents were not allowed to sit by their wood-burning fire, and if they did, they could be fined. Officials sent out a news release the day before, stating air quality would be unhealthy. Kristine Roselius, a spokesperson for the Air District, said “generally we are fairly accurate.”

We not only found the Air District got the forecast for January 1 wrong, it got a lot of other days wrong, too.

Our Bay Area Investigative Unit went through all of the Air District’s predictions and compared them to the actual air quality readings. The numbers revealed the Air Quality was unhealthy on seven days in December, but "Spare the Air" alerts were not issued for three of those of those days.

In January, two days were unhealthy, Jan. 9 and 10. Officials missed those. Instead, they called four "Spare the Air" days: January 1, 2, 11 and 12. None of those days exceeded health standards.

“What troubles us is when we forecast that air quality and it goes above the health standard," Roselius said. "That’s what we are trying to avoid and we are making every effort to do that.”

The Air District says its meteorologists look at a lot of factors, including historical data, weather conditions and if they think people will be burning. Air Quality is then rated on a scale. Anything over 100 triggers a "Spare the Air" alert.

So far this season, that’s happened 14 times, which means 14 days residents couldn’t burn wood. However, NBC Bay Area found the air quality was unhealthy on just four of those days. When questioned if the Air District is issuing false alarms, Roselius said, “Absolutely not. We only call them when we have to. When we call an alert and we come in under the health standard, that is a victory. That is fantastic.”

It can be frustrating for those who avoid sparking a fire based on what the air district predicts...predictions that are often wrong.

Officials contend forecasting is not an exact science, and there are a lot of variables that factor into the equation. However, when the district gets it wrong, it means residents are getting cited and possibly ticketed on days when the air quality is actually good.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District released this statement to NBC Bay Area, “After the Wood Burning Rule was passed in 2008, we did the forecast by 10 a.m. each day and the alert went into effect that SAME day from noon that day until noon the next day. A same day forecast allowed us to have more data to work with to make the forecast, however, it gave the public very short notice when an alert was called.

We received a lot of feedback from the media that they wanted to notify their readers/viewers/listeners the day before, just like we do in the summer. In response to the public and media, the following winter season (2009-2010), we started doing the forecast the day BEFORE to give the public more notice. We sacrificed some accuracy by doing this, but this was weighed against giving the public more notice and we agreed that this was important.

It is extremely challenging to produce a forecast a day in advance, especially in the winter months because weather patterns change so rapidly. Because of the media and public outcry regarding notice, we factored that in when we changed to doing the forecast the day before the alert. One key thing to remember is that we always err on the side of air quality so that Bay Area residents have healthy air to breathe.”

How Effective is "Spare the Air"?

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