MENLO PARK (KPIX 5) — A Bay Area fire department is under scrutiny for staging a live fire training exercise, while residents have been banned from wood burning for several days due to poor air quality.

Friday marked the sixth day in a row the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a Winter Spare the Air alert. Officials have issued another alert for Saturday. Bay Area residents are banned from burning wood during a Winter Spare the Air Alert, and could face penalties if caught.

Michael Jones, who suffers from asthma, is well aware of the dirty air over the past few days. “I do notice a little bit more irritation and breathing problems. It’s something that I have had to control for a long time,” Jones told KPIX 5.

On Thursday, something made his problems worse for Jones, who works in East Palo Alto. The Menlo Park Fire Protection District ran a live fire training exercise for new recruits near the Dumbarton Bridge, which sent a significant amount of wood smoke over the region.

Jones said he had to reach for his inhaler and was upset when he found out that fire departments are exempt from the wood burning bans.

“It’s kind of disturbing because the public, the breathing public, we don’t get an exemption from the air pollution. We’re not allowed to burn in our fireplaces. Yet, you have got probably a thousand times the amount of smoke coming out of this controlled burn which doesn’t have to happen on these particular days,” he said.

Division Chief Frank Fraone of the fire department said, “We did realize it was a Spare the Air Day.”

Fraone said his department could not easily call off the live fire exercise. He said the department is in the final days of a fire academy, which is training new recruits for 10 departments in the Bay Area.

“This is our opportunity to evaluate these young recruits in a fire situation,” Fraone said.

He said the department took advantage of an exemption that allows one live fire burn every quarter, even if it falls on a Spare the Air Day.

“We understand the situation on it, but we also understand that we need to make those balances,” Fraone said. “These are the people who will risk their lives for these people out there and we need to make sure that know they understand what they are getting into.”

For now, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District does not foresee making any changes to the policy.

“This particular weather pattern that’s trapping air quality in the Bay Area for such an extended period of time is rather unusual. And so, we will continue to look at our historic numbers, but then looking forward to see if there’s potentially anything that we might need to adjust in the future. But right now we know we need to leave certain exemptions in place just for public safety.”

Menlo Park fire officials said they try to schedule live fire training exercises during times of the year when Spare the Air days are not as likely. The department said there is also a shortage of firefighters in the Bay Area and that they need to have recruits ready to go in the next few weeks.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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