Blaming recent wildfires on target shooters is unjustified because standard ammunition can’t start fires.
A number of recent wildfires have been blamed on target shooters, and readers called to say they didn’t believe it.
Clark Hesterlee of Sparks said he started shooting in the desert in 1946.
He even tried to start a fire by shooting with his brother into a gulley filled with dried tumbleweeds that fed into a lake. They shot about 10 rounds into it, and nothing happened.
“I’ve always wondered how they determine that it was by target shooting,” Hesterlee said. “I don’t think it’s possible to do it with standard ammunition.”
Will Brown said he’s also done target shooting in the desert for decades, even putting cheatgrass next to targets to try to start a fire, and never started one.
Brown worries that a fraud is being perpetrated.
“The reason I’m concerned is that someone is going to propose a law that you can no longer fire a gun in the months of June, July, August and September, and that’s going to deprive everyone who is any kind of shooter,” he said.
“I want to make sure our freedoms don’t go away on these fabricated stories.”
Brown said standard lead and copper bullets don’t spark.
“That’s based on my own experience and industry standards for spark-proof tools approved for use in explosive atmospheres,” he said.
Brown, by the way, is a retired battalion chief for the Sparks Fire Department.
Before going further, a brief ammo lesson is needed. A bullet is often made of lead, or a lead core surrounded by a jacket of copper, set atop a casing (often made of brass) with a propellant and primer. When the trigger is pulled, the firing pin hits the primer, igniting the propellant. Hot gases propel the bullet out of the gun barrel to its target.
Some bullets — especially armor-piercing ammo — have steel cores, and this steel can spark when hitting other steel or rocks, but such ammo is harder to get and expensive. The copper-jacketed lead rounds are more common.
The National Fire Protection Association puts out a publication to help fire investigators called NFPA 921. It says:
“The use of black powder (uncommon muzzle-loading) firearms, and modern firearms discharging tracer, incendiary and steel core ammunition can cause wildfires. Black powder caused fires are frequently the result of burning patch material rather than wildland fuels ignited directly by the burning black powder. The burning chemical compounds contained within the projectile of tracer and incendiary ammunition can ignite wildland fuels. Ammunition with steel cores, such as armor piercing ammunition and certain brands of 7.62 x 39 mm. ammunition, can cause fires when the steel core strikes a rock or other material hard enough to cause sparks.”
To boil that down, it does not tell fire investigators to consider standard lead and copper bullets as possible wildfire causes.
Yet Fact Checker talked to numerous fire personnel in Sparks, Reno, the state fire marshal’s office and Sierra Front, and all of them said they had either witnessed fires started by gunfire or had been told that’s what happened by target shooters.
And gun forums are filled with tales of bullet sparks. For example, here’s what a senior moderator on the site DefensiveCarry.com wrote:
“I see it every single day. I work at a range with steel traps in the back to catch the bullets. Sometimes I enjoy watching beyond the targets and watching all of the sparks that fly off of the traps in the back. It’s rather pretty to watch, and it’s caused by all types of bullets.”
Lt. Mike Dzyak with the Nevada State Fire Marshal said, “We do night shoots and you can see bullets sparking off rocks.”
Ken Watters of the Capitol City Gun Club said, “I have seen sparks where a bullet has ricocheted off rocks, and the bullet had a copper jacket. At those velocities, there’s a lot of heat generated. Most of the shooting ranges around here have dirt backdrops with no rocks so there isn’t the risk of sparks.”
And Chris Healy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife said that the department’s hunter education program gives this advice about preparing for hunting season by making sure your gun and scopes are aimed properly:
“When you sight-in your firearm, we recommend you go to an established range and you don’t go into the outback because of the danger of fires.”
On the other hand, Tami Cummings with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said the range masters told her they have never seen copper-jacketed bullets spark.
Such conflicting reports are not a surprise to Reno fire investigator Jason O’Neal, who said regarding whether standard ammo can spark, “There’s no research out there either way, nothing that says it does, nothing that says it doesn’t.
“All we have is anecdotal evidence where people have been out at scenes shooting with high-powered rifles saying that fires started where they were shooting.”
O’Neal added, “If they’re shooting at metal targets, it could spark.”
Mark Regan of the Sierra Fire Protection District said in response to readers’ concerns, “They’re correct on standard ammunition that the ammunition won’t start (fires), but it depends what people are shooting at. The thing they hit might spark.”
He gave examples of fires started when someone shot an old TV that had trapped gas inside and another involving the shooting of an abandoned car that had WD-40 and cans of paint in the back.
He said shooting automatic weapons and high-powered rifles can be strong enough to cause sparks that ignite cheat grass. And, he added, some target shooters use incendiary ammo or even exploding targets.
Fact Checker found no definitive studies on standard ammo sparking fires — although O’Neal said the Nevada chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators is conducting research on it. Still, a verdict is needed.
Of all the sources checked, most concur that copper and lead don’t spark.
But, until scientific research reveals otherwise, Fact Checker is convinced by an abundance of anecdotal evidence that if copper-lead bullets are fired at a high velocity, they can strike with such force that bits of their targets can superheat and fly off in a way that can start a wildfire.
Truth Meter: 4
P.S. Yes, target shooters can start fires in other ways, as with a careless cigarette butt or a vehicle’s catalytic converter on dry weeds. The act of shooting is not to blame in those cases.
P.P.S. You can find videos online with people, at dusk, shooting what they say are copper-jacketed bullets from high-powered rifles at steel targets. There are sparks.