A bird cruises through smoky skies in Butte County, Calif., where wood stoves are busy. (Photo Bill Husa and front page photo by Ty Barbour/Chico Enterprise-Record.)

CHICO, Calif. — When Darrell McGillis, 82, steps outside to fetch the newspaper on a winter morning, his lungs serve as his personal barometer. If the air is thick with chimney smoke, his nostrils and lungs begin to burn.

“If I spend any time out there, I have to take a breath of my inhaler when I get back inside,” said McGillis, a cardiac patient whose lungs are wracked with a chronic disorder. He relies on three separate prescription devices to ease his breathing. On smoky days, he stays indoors.

Wood smoke divides the healthy from the vulnerable in towns such as Chico, with its chilly winters and a wealth of firewood. Smoke from 11,000 residential wood-burning stoves is the number one cause of wintertime air pollution in this city 90 miles north of Sacramento that is known for almond orchards, mountain views and Sierra Nevada beer.

Doctors here and nationwide are increasingly blaming residential smoke for aggravating problems such as asthma and McGillis’ chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. They warn that smoke exposure can even lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Yet in a state that normally leads the nation in fighting air pollution, wood smoke is not a priority.

California is famous for its aggressive campaigns targeting high-emission cars, diesel-burning trucks, second-hand smoke and now greenhouse gases.

But it lags behind some other states when it comes to a statewide approach to combat air pollution caused by smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

State air quality officials label wood-burning stoves a “local issue.” They have delegated responsibility for reining in wood smoke to the 35 air pollution control districts statewide — including rural areas in Northern California where thousands of households rely on wood fuel for some or all of their heat.

Larger districts such as the one overseeing the metropolitan Bay Area have the staff, resources and political will to restrict wood burning and to help aid residents buy cleaner-burning, EPA-approved stoves.

But in rural areas such as Chico, local districts have neither cash nor clout. Last month, residents were startled and chagrined to learn that Klamath County, Ore., a smaller county 200 miles to the north, has landed $900,000 in federal stimulus money to aid residents there to buy new stoves.

Klamath County garnered that money because Oregon clean air and energy officials teamed up to win $2 million for stove trade-outs, including money for stoves that burn wood pellets instead of smokier logs.

No such stimulus money is flowing to Chico, or to other areas of California suffering from wintertime air pollution from wood burning.

Although the California Energy Commission has obtained $314.5 million in federal stimulus funds, none of that money is earmarked for cleaner stoves. Instead, the stimulus money will go to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy and jobs, a spokeswoman said.

Some of that money is paying for the current “Cash for Appliances” trade-out program for refrigerators, clothes washers and air conditioners. That disturbs officials at the Butte County Air Quality Management District, which includes Chico. The district flunked federal air quality standards on 11 days last winter because of wood smoke, and officials there believe they deserve some stimulus money, too.

But the commission has no plans to finance wood stove trade-outs.

“We don’t consider wood and pellets an energy source,” said commission spokeswoman Michele Demetras. “It is not within our purview.”

Nor is residential smoke a direct responsibility of the powerful California Air Resources Board.

The state air board deals largely with sources of air pollution that move — such as cars, trucks and train engines — while the local districts handle so-called “stationary sources” such as wood-burning stoves, board officials say.

Yet in the offices of the state’s health agencies, concern is mounting that wood smoke can be harmful.

Scores of scientific studies have concluded that tiny particles in wood smoke can threaten human health, worsening breathing problems, speeding up heart rate, provoking blood clots and even causing heart attacks and strokes. The smoke also contains chemicals known to cause cancer.

“I’m convinced that it causes potentially serious health effects in some people, particularly asthmatics,” said Dr. Michael Lipsett, chief of the environmental health investigations branch at the state Department of Public Health.

Some activists believe California should classify wood smoke a “toxic air contaminant” just as it does second-hand smoke.

Elsewhere in the West, some states and regions began regulating wood smoke decades ago:

** Oregon led the nation in the early 1980s with its stove certification program, a precursor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national program. Its legislature recently passed a law requiring that non-certified wood stoves be removed from homes when they are sold.

** Reno, Nev., has limited wood burning since 1987, prompted in part by concerns that air pollution would harm tourism. “The air just looked bad,” said Andy Goodrich, air quality director at the Washoe County Health District.

** The Seattle area adopted curbs on residential wood burning after a severe 1985 smog problem that closed the airport was linked not to industrial pollution but to the smoke from residents’ stoves. Since then, wood smoke has been slashed by three-quarters or more, said Jim Nolan, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

** In Libby, Mont., wintertime smog was reduced by 28 percent in the year after a major stove change-out. Starting in 2005, the local health department replaced nearly 1,200 old stoves with new models, pellet stoves or gas or wood heat, using money from the state of Montana, the EPA, the stove industry and other sources. University of Montana researchers believe that air pollution inside the homes of Libby residents may have dropped even more sharply.

Asked why California has not adopted a more ambitious statewide approach to reduce wood smoke, Lynn Terry, the state air board’s deputy executive director, responded in a written statement.

“Most other states have only state-level air agencies. California is different,” the statement said. “State law divides authority between local air agencies and the state Air Resources Board. Regulating residential smoke is a local program.”

Some of those local air agencies, however, cannot assemble strong local programs due to lack of funds and rural residents’ anti-regulatory sentiment.

For instance, Butte County residents successfully blocked a local attempt last year to limit wood burning. Some called it government intrusion into their homes. Others said that they can’t afford shelling out as much as $3,000 for a new stove plus installation.

Many in and around Chico said that to heat their homes in tight economic times, they rely on the cheap firewood produced when older almond and walnut orchards are cleared to make way for new, higher-producing trees.

But in Chico and nationwide, air regulators were forced to ramp up efforts to curb residential smoke after EPA tightened its rules for particle pollution in 2006.

A statewide review shows that 17 of the state’s 35 districts have enacted some kind of wood-burning rules.

They include the districts overseeing Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where fireplaces used for aesthetics far outnumber wood-burning stoves.

For instance, an estimated 1.4 million fireplaces — and only 39,500 wood stoves — can be found in the giant district encompassing Orange County and the urban parts of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Soon, fireplace and stove owners throughout the South Coast area will be forced to adjust to mandatory no-burn days. Starting in November 2011, the district will ban burning an estimated 10 to 25 days a year, as needed, to reduce particle pollution.

Already, the district has spent $616,000 in $125 incentives to retrofit more than 6,000 wood-burning fireplaces with gas logs.

Cooler temperatures in the Bay Area foster more wood-burning than in the Los Angeles area, creating smoke that historically has made up one-third of particulate pollution in winter months.

So the sprawling nine-county local air district launched mandatory no-burn days in 2008, targeting an estimated 1.4 million fireplaces. The district set aside $500,000 to help residents switch to gas logs, but only $251,600 has been spent so far on 545 change-outs.

Air districts in the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento have also adopted mandatory no-burn days. But a number of rural districts have steered away from such rules, especially in colder northern areas where, as in Chico, many residents can’t afford new, cleaner-burning stoves.

Now the City of Chico is considering its own mandatory no-burn ordinance, which could be in effect by next winter. But without vouchers or other aid, many residents cannot afford modern stoves to clean the air their families breathe.

Chico physician James Wood can tell from the acrid smell in the examining room if a child’s family heats with wood. If the child suffers from asthma, Wood suggests the parents buy a cleaner stove, but many low-income families cannot afford one.

“It would be like telling them, if they had an old car, that they had to trade up to a Cadillac,” Wood said.

Deborah Schoch is a senior writer for The California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, an independent, nonpartisan news organization based at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Her reporting was part of a recent project on wood-burning smoke with the Chico Enterprise-Record, and City Editor Steve Schoonover contributed to this report.