Target shooters blamed for 8 recent fires, but not all agree on cause

Target shooters blamed for 8 recent fires, but not all agree on cause

29 July 2011

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USA — From Saratoga Springs to Farmington, wildfires have put neighborhoods on edge in recent weeks. State officials say guns are to blame, but a prominent gun advocate disputes the theory.

Fire investigator Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said eight wildfires in the past three weeks were triggered by target shooting. He said that includes three of the four biggest wildfires in northern Utah.

“Shooting into a rocky area surrounded by light vegetation that’s all dried out, it’s just a recipe for wildfire,” Curry said.

But Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said such an explanation is highly unlikely. “I have easily fired millions of rounds, and I have yet to start a fire,” Aposhian said.

Curry said his investigation produced evidence that several of the eight fires were triggered by target shooters using relatively cheap steel-core bullets that are typically made in Russia.

“When they strike a rock they cause a spark,” Curry said, “and that spark in turn can cause a fire.”

He said several other wildfires were set off by shooters firing into so-called “exploding targets.” Those are small containers of chemicals that become explosive when mixed. When struck by a high-speed bullet, they produce a sizable explosion.

When a wildfire broke out in the foothills above Farmington Wednesday night, three target shooters were briefly arrested. They’ve been summoned to appear in court on possible misdemeanor charges of reckless burning. Curry said the three shooters acted responsibly in quickly calling 911 after the fire broke out in their target area. That allowed firefighters to pounce on it quickly and prevent it from spreading much farther.

Aposhian thinks a more plausible explanation for the recent spate of fires is target shooters dropping cigarettes, using illegal tracer ammunition or triggering fires with vehicles. He said it’s much less likely the fires were started by bullets or exploding targets.

“It’s highly unlikely,” Aposhian said, “and certainly there is no pattern of this happening.”

Curry said the evidence he’s collected in recent weeks makes it clear that the target shooting itself is the problem. Wednesday’s 14-acre fire in the Farmington foothills is a case in point. Using a metal detector and a magnet, Curry found what he believes triggered the fire. “Bullet fragments that were ferrous metal,” Curry said, “meaning, made from steel.”

His concerns are echoed by people who have been frightened by wildfires lately. Julie Smith of Saratoga Springs watched on July 11 as a wildfire consumed barns and haystacks near her home. “You see them shooting and then you see the smoke come up,” Smith said, “so it is very obvious that they have” started the fire.

“When we arrive on the fire scenes, they don’t stop shooting,” said Saratoga Springs Fire Chief Jerry Lund.

Aposhian remains unconvinced. “I think technically it’s possible,” he  said, “but it’s highly unlikely.”

According to Curry, state and federal officials have agreed to sit down with Aposhian and try to find common ground on the issue. No date has been set for that meeting.

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