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A Victim of Woodsmoke Pollution


- by Shirley Brandie,

In 2000, we bought a home to enjoy our retirement in. It was perfect for us! Everything on one floor, a surrounding deck, and a large expanse of lawn. Little did we know that, in 2002, our lives would be changed dramatically! Beginning in 2002, our home became surrounded and infiltrated by wood smoke from our neighbour. There was no help in getting this smoke stopped. Everywhere we turned we received sympathy but were told there was nothing they could do.

We were told that it was an issue to be dealt with at the municipal level. Approaching the municipality and asking for help gave us more sympathy but no action. 

The people we talked with said it was a “civil matter.” We called the Building Inspector repeatedly about the height of the chimney and were told it met code.

We spoke, both in person and by telephone, to the neighbours telling them that the smoke was getting into our house and making life almost unbearable. The response was to “keep your windows closed.” We tried to explain that the smoke gets in through the furnace intake, spaces under doors, etc. They then said they would not stop burning, would burn what they want and to sue them if we didn’t like it… which we finally ended up doing. We obtained a temporary court injunction in May of 2005. Trial is pending. 

We approached our local council and they decided that the chimney needed to be raised and thought that would solve the problem. The chimney was raised, but the problem continued as the burning increased and the smoke billowed out day and night. There was no escaping the smoke and the stench. Many nights I would sleep with my head under the sheets hoping to escape the irritants of the smoke. I had burning eyes, a continual sore throat and nasal irritation that led to many sinus headaches and infections.

The brick chimney was originally an outdoor barbeque, that I never saw used. He added what I like to call a “plastic room” around it and attached it to the side of the house. The plastic room was made of materials, he told the press, that he obtained from a greenhouse that was being rebuilt. The roof, also, is made of some type of corrugated plastic. The plastic room remains to this day. He then decided to add a wood stove instead and had it built in the far corner of the plastic room. This chimney pipe was too short and the council, once again, dealt with him and he raised it by about 5 feet. They had him replace the chimney cap, hoping it would deflect the smoke away. It didn’t. Perhaps he was upset about this as he removed the cap the next day and burned up a storm. The cap was later put back on.

Materials were stored in the yard in various places. Most were partially covered but some piles were just thrown together. These piles contained treated wood, plywood, red barn wood, plastics, and scraps. The smoke was nauseating and the colour of the smoke varied by what was being burned. I knew then that we would have to do something!

I can tell you first-hand what it is like when one is forced to deal with a smoke issue, as I have lived through it. I can tell you that the stench permeates your entire home, your clothing, your hair, and you can even taste it. Exposure to the smoke was extremely uncomfortable and caused burning eyes, dry throat, irritation of the nasal passages and headaches. When the smoke stopped, so did the symptoms. There was no relief by opening windows because the acrid smells were like a fog covering our house. Buying expensive air cleaners did nothing to remove the odours. There was no enjoying the deck and yard as long as the wood burning stove was in operation.

As there was no provincial or municipal authority to whom we could turn to for help, we were forced to resort to the courts. In order to get the smell of the wood smoke out of the house, we removed and replaced the carpeting, ductwork, the furnace and air conditioning unit, and cleaned all surfaces including the walls. Mattresses and pillows were discarded as they smelled of wood smoke. It was an expensive project. I can tell you the fatigue my husband felt after working all day and then going to our house until near midnight day after day to work on the renovations.

We were fortunate enough to have the means to seek legal help. Remember that there was no provincial or municipal authority which we could turn to for help. What would happen to those that cannot afford legal help? Would they be forced to move out of their homes? Could they afford to do that? Would they be able to sell their home when a potential buyer saw or smelled the smoke? Or, would they have to remain in their homes with their children and become sick? It's a thought that is very disturbing to me. I think it is high time that our municipalities give some thought to banning all wood burning in residential areas. I fail to see how the public interest is served by permitting the unnecessary fouling of the air we all have the need to breathe.

To those of you that think this kind of thing could never happen to you, think again! It can happen almost overnight and not one family is guaranteed that they won’t end up in the same position as we did. Many municipalities have a “no outdoor burning” bylaw, yet the smoke from indoor burning is released into the air and permeates throughout neighbourhoods and gets into neighbours’ homes. There is no escaping it, inside or out. Where is the help for the victims?

The victims of smoke are a majority. The burners are not. Why is it so difficult to ban wood burning in residential areas? There is no smoking in public places now, yet the smoke from wood burning is far more dangerous and travels for miles, exposing everyone to its dangerous toxins. Does this make sense to anyone? Those municipalities that feel that a bylaw telling people what they can burn in their fireplaces and wood stoves is a good one are dead wrong.


Thank you for sharing this sad yet important story. With enough sharing of tales like this one, and when they are read and heard, far and wide by open hearts and fair minds everywhere, revolutionary laws that phase out residential wood burning altogether, will finally be understood to be justifiably needed, finally created, and wisely enforced.

In the end, the burning was ended permanently and he or anyone else that ever owns that property can never burn again. I requested a bylaw so this won't happen to anyone else and the bylaw has been written. It needs to go to a public meeting and then be brought before council to be voted on. This should happen in the near future.

Municipalities are not prepared to act on wood smoke pollution and particularly the Outdoor Wood Boilers that produce incredible levels of pollution. It is puzzling because politicians could find their lives turned into a nightmare because of a neighbor burning wood.

This story is representative of thousands of similar stories throughout the US and Canada. People are suffering from unnecessary smoke from calloused neighbors. A common theme is that municipalities, counties, states and the federal government are of little or no help. So in order to get justice, the individual is forced to go to the courts on their own. Not everyone has the means to do this and suing your neighbors is difficult, even if it is necessary. More people need to demand that administrative laws are enforced. Somewhere along government administrations there are codes that polluters are breaking. If the municipality does not have codes on the books about polluting the air, then the county should have codes that are being violated. If the counties don't have codes then the state should have them. Then, if the state will not enforce their administrative laws, the federal EPA definitely has them and they should be enforcing them. They have the authority. They can issue citations just like a policeman or patrolman. A complaint has to be made in order to start action by one of the government agencies. The administrations can be sued to force them to enforce their own rules. If a citizen wins, the administration has to pay for the citizens legal fees. We need to get more strict with our government agencies and demand that they act. The State of Alaska is suing two people with outdoor wood burning boilers in Fairbanks, Alaska. This is what should happen.

Here is a story that every councillor should read. Too many people are having to suffer in silence because of antiquated laws that only protect the burners. Everybody has the right to breathe clean air.
Thanks to Shirley Brandie for her story and let us hope it is an incentive for others to tell theirs as well.
We all need to speak up to force change; it isn't going to just happen by itself.

We finally ended the burning forever on that property no matter who ever owns it. I requested a bylaw to cover smoke and it has been written and will go to a public meeting and then be brought back to council to be voted on.

Hi Shirley Brandie.
I'm so very pleased to learn from you what happened next!

Thank you for ending the burning permanently for that burner, and for anyone else that ever lives there!

A High Five from an Ever Grateful Citizen"

Thank you Shirley for not giving up and showing people that one person can make such a difference. I am so sorry though for the hell you had to go through to get that job done.
Deepest respect.
Deborah Barrie