(CBS SF) — With an unpopular “Spare the Air” advisory in place today banning all burning in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits and more, many Bay Area residents are looking for ways around the rules.

The alerts are designed to reduce pollution from wood burning, as soot in the smoke is the single largest contributor to particulate pollution, leading to breathing problems, lung irritation, even changes in blood chemistry that can contribute to heart attacks.

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The Bay Area Air  Quality Management District website acknowledges the frustration of a ban on a holidays, writing, “On any day that air pollution levels become unhealthy, the Air District is obligated to notify the public and mitigate sources of air pollution, so on these days, a Winter Spare the Air Alert is called to protect public health of Bay Area residents, regardless of the day.”

That said, the answer to the burning question is that there are two exemptions, and contrary to popular belief, religious reasons or ceremonial fires are not actually exempt.

The first exemption is for food. Turns out, technically, you can roast chestnuts over an open fire. It’s when you’re not roasting that you’re in trouble. Fires for cooking are allowed. Perhaps popping popcorn or smoking a turkey, roasting a pig or deep pit barbecue should all be okay, depending on what an inspector sees.  Grills, smokers (ironically), outdoor spits and rotisseries are also legal.

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The second is, theoretically, if you were to disconnect your gas or electrical heater and claim that a fireplace is your “only source of heat,” you would also be exempt.  This is obviously important for many residents whose homes are not connected to PG&E, but of little use if you just want to enjoy a yule log today.

And, if you’re really a Grinch and want to turn in your neighbors for burning today, there is a hotline to report violations: 1-877-4NO-BURN. The agency does have inspectors who enforce the bans. First time violators are issued a “Notice of Violation” and can take a Wood Smoke Awareness class instead of paying a fine. Second time violators get hit with a $500 fine, and it goes up from there. But, citations can only legally be issued if an Air District inspector personally observes and documents the infraction.

By the way, even if the ban is lifted for Christmas Day, it’s still illegal to burn garbage, like wrapping paper.

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