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Mayor calls for wood heater buy-back scheme as residents rage over suburban smoke

Cr Rennie said she was responding to a flurry of complaints from residents concerned about smoke from neighbouring houses creating health risks and harming the environment.

“It wouldn’t be okay to throw your rubbish over your neighbour’s fence,” she said. “And it’s equally not okay to have your smoke pouring over someone’s fence.”

Darebin Council, which has declared a climate emergency, received a petition for “urgent action” in January signed by 71 people.

Councillors unanimously agreed to press the state government on restricting urban wood heating and to launch its own education campaign about clean and considerate use of wood heaters.

Dr Andrea Hinwood from the Victorian Environment Protection Authority, herself bothered by the smoke from a neighbourhood chimney, said it was vexed issue.

“Wood heaters put out pollutants, like exhaust from cars or bushfires,” said Dr Hinwood, the EPA’s chief environmental scientist.

“But this is where it gets complicated: some people don’t have any other source of heating.”

She urged people to use other methods where possible, particular when EPA predicted air conditions were right for smoke to get trapped in the breathable atmosphere.

“What we would want to get across to people is if you have a wood heater, we don’t want you to feel bad about it because you need to have heat, and there are competing views around that,” she said.

“But what we want people to do is maintain their heater properly.”

She said those burning logs should use dry wood, clean their heater regularly, burn a bright flame, not allow the fire to smoulder overnight and never burn rubbish or painted wood.

Drew Diamond from Wonga Park, who has been using his wood heater for 35 years, said many people had no other practical or financially viable options to stay warm.

“Not everyone has a gas mains going by right by the front door,” he said.

Mr Diamond said he often saw people scavenging wood from outside factories in Bayswater and a recycling centre in Kilsyth.

“I haven’t spoken to them, but they’re usually women, and I bet they’re single mums on a tight budget and they’re using it for firewood because that’s all they can afford,” he said.

Mr Diamond, who has neighbours also burning log fires, said people should educate themselves on safe and appropriate burning.

“Also the story here is we’re supposed to keep our bush blocks clear of all the flammable stuff, so we burn it through the heater in winter and by the time the summer comes it’s all gone,” he said. “What do you do with it? Do you leave it out there to become fuel load?

“We’re on a tight budget and the wood’s there. It’s a gift from the bush.”

A 2017 study by the EPA showed an increase in days exceeding air quality standards, “mostly attributed to urban sources, such as wood fire heaters.”

While in April this year, doctors in the Yarra Ranges reported a spike in respiratory complaints, thought to be a consequence of wood heater smoke. EPA inspections found “moderate” smoke pollution – not enough to trigger specific warnings to residents.

Asked if would consider a buy-back scheme, the Andrews government said it was “strengthening Victoria’s environmental protections to give EPA more powers to prevent air pollution.”

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