Target Shooting a Major Cause of Arizona Forest Fires

Gary Hanna's cruising through the desert wildlands east of Phoenix in his white SUV, hunting for shooters.

On this warm early morning in late June, the forest ranger is one of several state and federal officials patrolling the southern Tonto National Forest on the lookout for one of the most frequent causes of wildfires — people shooting guns. It's the reason behind as many as 31 Tonto fires since 2009, authorities say.

Signs posted at the dirt-road entrance to the Tonto off Beeline Highway warn of fire restrictions (lifted as of July 17 for this season) that include a ban on target shooting, but it's easy to miss them. Even when people learn of the restrictions, they don't always abide by them and probably don't see much fire risk in some of the denuded, pockmarked dirt hills that serve as convenient backstops.

Plants and rocks in the desert tend to have a washed-out look in the dead of summer. The year's been unusually dry, and monsoon rains haven't yet come. Yellow, dead grass runs everywhere among the cacti, looking ripe for a blaze.

Hanna, supervisor of the Tonto's Mesa Ranger District, takes a dirt road that leads to the top of a high hill, stops, and gets out of his vehicle. A group of people near a black car can be seen below in a well-used target-shooting spot that includes a small parking area and an old TV, used to support targets. Behind the TV is a half-bald rise of dirt, rocks, and — to the sides — grass and brush.

Hanna turns around his SUV and drives down to the location.

Two young men and a woman, college-age kids from Mesa, already have begun unloading rounds at their targets of several empty plastic two-gallon containers. The shots from the handguns sound small in the desert as Hanna pulls up next to the trio's car. The wisecracking shooters, Tim Wilson, Marcus Stripling, and Tina Gallo, are confused about why they're getting hassled.

"I was hoping you'd see the signs on the way in," Hanna tells them. He explains that though Forest Service officials believe shooting is a "legitimate activity" in the Tonto, it's currently prohibited because of fire risk.

"Even if we're super-careful?" Wilson asks.

"Yes," Hanna responds, pointing out a black-shaded blot of about two acres on a nearby hillside. He tells them that target shooting is believed to be the cause of a fire on the land. Although the risk appears minimal where the group was shooting, he admits, part of the problem arises from shooters who place targets in the brush next to pre-existing target-shooting areas.

Wilson suggests to his friends that they go to a nearby public shooting range.

"We've got all this ammo; it'd be a shame not to shoot something," he says, grinning.

Wilson tells New Times he saw a "big sign" about fire restrictions after he turned off Beeline but didn't read it. He doesn't think there's much danger in what he and his friends were doing. He nods to Hanna, "But this guy does, and he's the boss."

The three pile into their sedan and drive away.

Off-roaders are allowed to ride their ATVs and dirt bikes all summer long through the Tonto. Mountain biking, horseback riding, camping, hiking, bird-watching, rock climbing, and even hunting — by those with licenses — are acceptable. But target shooting causes fires, authorities say, and the activity must be prohibited on federal lands for about two months each year.

Fire restrictions that included the ban on such shooting began on May 22 of this year. Usually, the restrictions continue until well into summer's rainy season.

Hanna is sympathetic to the shooters' side of things — he's lived most of his life in Colorado and Arizona. And although the long-haired ranger says he enjoys mountain biking more than dragging elk through the forest, his extensive experience as an outdoorsman includes big-game hunting and recreational shooting.

Fire is an overarching concern for Hanna and other land managers. With no end in sight to long-term drought conditions, summer in the Tonto can be tense. Fire danger is, officially, "extreme." Many small fires start for all sorts of reasons, and some blow up into huge blazes that scorch thousands of acres. Human-caused fires, of course, are preventable.

Besides having U.S. Forest Service personnel, the Tonto receives funds to hire state Game and Fish law enforcement rangers to help patrol the southern forest, which is typical Sonoran Desert terrain, not forest, and which borders on the Phoenix metropolitan area and its more than 4 million people.

Authorities stop and chat with many of the Tonto users they encounter. They tell visitors about seasonal fire restrictions on outdoor smoking and, of course, on campfires. But only target shooters are, in effect, shooed away.

Once in the desert outfitted for shooting, there's no switching on the fly to mountain biking or ATV'ing. Target shooters have two choices — go to a shooting range or go home.

At a different Tonto entrance, a dirt road leading through a metal-pole gate (now propped open), a midsize white pickup rolls up with a man at the wheel and three pre-teen kids sitting to his right. A metal clay-pigeon thrower can be seen in the pickup's bed.

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42 comments
papahutch2000
papahutch2000

All you badass gunsels ought to read some history.  I just read The Godfather and it is right on about gunsels, as is the history of the West.  You live by the gun, you die by the gun.  Come on my porch uninvited, gun punk, and see what you have wrought.

papahutch2000
papahutch2000

We were living in an isolated ranch headquarters recently, in an area frequented by hunters [pendejos] and except for their running over our water lines an even valves, but one morning some serious pendejo fired five rounds into our area.  My mistake was to take cover and announce that he should stop.  [200meters]  I loaded up our quad to go have a friendly chat with him but could not find him.  Good thing, maybe, but he would have never done that shit again.

All you gunsels are out in force on this one, protecting your beloved guns, which  you must sleep with, instead of a good woman.  I want to tell  you that I sleep with both and I would love nothing better than to blow the guts out of a pendejo who threatens me or my water or my animals.  Try me. I am more ready than you are.  USMC trained and ready.  Bet none of you pissants ever saw fire.

robert_graham
robert_graham topcommenter

I've heard there's been a lot of illegals running through our forests lately.

geoffbeneze
geoffbeneze

Instead of all the new age arm waving BS, I would very much like to have you or FS or G&F or any of the other naysayers sit down and explain to me, with proven fact, just how these firearms are starting these fires. 

Otherwise, the entire story (and FS) had no credibility at all.

KennyKiklar
KennyKiklar

Wow, is this ever some sensationalist horseshit.

NT, I agree with you much of the time on your willingness to call out people like Arpaio and Napolitano.  But when you're this desperate to pander to all things left-leaning, common sense be damned, then you lose me.  This comes across as clutching at straws by an ideologue.  It really does.

polycom
polycom

I can see a person shooting an incendiary round creating a fire but those people clearly are not thinking past the trigger of their weapon. However, I find it hard to understand how someone shooting a regular bullet could create a fire especially since these bullets would have to hit bare rock to spark a fire and plants don't grow on bare rock. I also think that it would be very unlikely that a bullet skimming into the dirt could spark anything as it is hitting mostly dust. 

I bet that the fires started from target shooters are more likely started from cigarette butts or campfires that were built to large or not put out correctly and are grouped as target shooting fires instead of lack of intelligence fires. 

All in all, good article.

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

It also happens to be clearly stated right up there in the Facebook post.

Keith Showalter
Keith Showalter

Uhh I do now, considering it came out today and I commented on this last night. I left my future seeing goggles at work.

Mikey1969
Mikey1969

 Last year, Elko County(NevadaCommissioner R. Jeff Williams wrote an op-ed about his skepticism of a fire investigator's study that shooting caused more than 34 percent of wildfires on U.S. BLMland over a recent 10-year period, making shooting the number-one human-related cause.

Yeah, I'm calling bullshit on that one, too. There is no way that assholes throwing their butts out the window and morons who can't build and control a campfire are responsible for less fires than an activity that "sometimes" could cause sparks, considering that the "sometimes" then has to meet with the right kind of situation, fuel, and no wind to immediately kill the spark.

And the picture of targets in a fire pit do nothing but show that someone had a fire there AFTER shooting, meaning that if it was in any way related, it wouldn't have been for the shooting, but for the fire.

Now, the dumbass with the incendiary round is a whole different story altogether, that's just stupidity, but there is no way people like that have caused "more than 34 percent of wildfires on US BLM land over a recent 10-year period", I've fired thousands of round myself, I have friends and family in the same boat, I know one guy that has probably fired incendiary rounds before, but NOBODY I know has even started a blaze they could put out, let alone a wildfire.

The other new trendy cause is "cars". Apparently pulling your car over causes wildfires, too, although once again, I've never had the oil pan from my car cause singed grass, let  alone start a wildfire, once again, NOBODY I know has had this happen, but it's what they're trying to peddle as well. Not sure why smokers and out of control campfires are suddenly angels in all this.

Also, putting in the little blurb about the dead hotshots, and then mentioning that they worked a wildfire before that that was supposedly started by target shooting? I see what you did there...

Really, all these investigations show is that about 3 or 4 started when someone was shooting and saw smoke, the rest were jackasses shooting things like tracer rounds, and the above-mentioned incendiary round from the shotgun.

In short, there's really no evidence, despite your claims that say it "suggests the feds are right". In reality, it's hard to say that shooting caused the fire, and claiming that it was caused by shooting just because it was near a shooting area, with no other evidence, is no better than claiming that Blacks are more likely to be criminals because there tend to be higher concentrations of Blacks in areas with higher crime.

But hey, it got you a cover story, right? Another week out of the way...

coyotejoe
coyotejoe

This article states as an absolute fact that fires are caused by target shooting when really that is pure speculation. If a fire breaks out after there has been shooting in the area shooting is blamed for the fire. Other than tracer or incendiary rounds or perhaps sticking the muzzle of a blackpowder gun directly into a wad of tinder I defy anyone to demonstrate how a fire could be started by firing copper or lead bullets. Those metals do not spark like you see in the movies, even the mild steel jackets of imported military ammo will not strike a spark from rocks. To strike sparks from flint requires a very hard fire steel and even with that you cannot start a fire by striking sparks directly into dry grass, it requires a substance like "char cloth" to catch the sparks and then the char cloth is placed into a nest of dry tinder and blown into a flame. It is a bit of an art to deliberately start a fire with flint and steel.

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

You do realize that the story you're commenting on is the cover story in this week's print edition right?

Keith Showalter
Keith Showalter

I still pick up the hard copy of NT, but why is the NT Facebook so so shitty? It's like I'm reading some other site with your name on it?

Eric Petsel
Eric Petsel

Smoking anything could and has started many fires too. We should let only police have guns and be allowed to arrest and immediately incarcerate anyone caught smoking crack ,cigarettes or joints in the desert for no less than one year to minimize the risk of future fire . The loss of personal freedom in a police state is certainly worth avoiding any further fire damage and loss .

Comanche_Moon
Comanche_Moon

Please just go to the shooting range. We have some really nice ones here in Arizona. Don't give the gun haters and the environment nuts ammunition.  

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

And there's also this: "23 known "target shooting correlated" fires have occurred inside the Tonto from 2009 to May 2012. Most were on the small side, ranging from less than an acre up to the largest, the Sunflower."

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

Did you read the story? Have you read Ray Stern's previous stories? If so, you might realize how off-base you are.

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

Not quite sure what your problem with this story is, but actually reading it might help.

marcy
marcy

"they aren't called firearms for nothing"?

Moronic

They don's set your arm on fire.  

When people get fired do they start forest fires also?

marcy
marcy

BS, shooters may cause fires by tossing cigarette butts or starting campfires but I challenge anyone to start a fire by shooting regular bullets, not incendiary shotgun rounds.  Go ahead, gather up some dry desert brush, arrange it however you want, stick metal or rocks in the mass of kindling and shoot away.

To then suggest that a large number of fires are started is ridiculous and can't be supported by any real evidence.

Yes, many shooters are irresponsible idiots who make a mess with their vehicles, trash, shooting up trees and other stuff and yes irresponsible idiots are the type of people who smoke and toss their lit butts on the ground but they aren't starting fires with bullets. 

JoAnn Bradley
JoAnn Bradley

19 Utah fires were proven caused by target shooting last year.

Rob No Bull
Rob No Bull

I call Bullshit! Your rag seems to have a lot of liberal readers now as well. Time to cut you loose.

David Hill
David Hill

This ranger is clueless, he doesn't quite have his facts straight. Only tracer rounds and incendiary rounds are able, with enough persistence could start a fire. Any other type of ammo will not. Shooting a .308 or black powder rifle in tall dry grass could spark a flame, but that's the result of the muzzle, not the bullet .

David Sullivan
David Sullivan

Wow what has happen to the news today, there once was a self pride about being a journalist and getting facts to the people so there was no misrepresentation of stories so lies and rumors don't happen. I'm so ashamed of all media outlets

papahutch2000
papahutch2000

You would piss your little panties if you saw my weapon pointing at you.

geoffbeneze
geoffbeneze

@polycom Unless the bullet is steel, and the steel is exposed, you won't get a spark from the slug itself. 

ray.stern
ray.stern moderator

@Mikey1969 Thanks, Mikey. Yes, another week out of the way -- and more great weeks ahead. 

I have to disagree with your statement "there's really no evidence." My article makes it clear some mystery still surrounds the concept of shooting-caused fires, but the article also lays out some of the best evidence, including the reports of witnesses who saw it happen. (The feds haven't yet released the names of those witnesses -- I'm still working on that and will do a blog post if they get me the info.) While you're right that "it's hard to say that shooting caused the fire" in many of the cases I examined, the statement isn't actually true in all of the cases. In those cases, the evidence speaks for itself.

ray.stern
ray.stern moderator

@coyotejoe You said, "I defy anyone to demonstrate how a fire could be started by firing copper or lead bullets."

Just reminding you that the article goes into detail about the experiment by Montana FS researchers who claim to have demonstrated exactly that.

geoffbeneze
geoffbeneze

@JoAnn Bradley please cite sources, give me the addresses of said sources, I wish to examine their scientific data. 

Liberal created BS is what this is.

coyotejoe
coyotejoe

@JoAnn Bradley  I don't believe ANY fire has ever been "proved" to have been caused by shooting, caused by shooters perhaps, but not by shooting. I defy anyone to demonstrate how that could happen aside from "tracer" rounds. Far more likely is fires started by hot vehicle exhaust systems. 

marcy
marcy

@Warren Klofkorn  

They set arms on fire?


Mikey1969
Mikey1969

@ray.stern @Mikey1969 BTW, don't get me wrong, i'm not part of the "They Want My Guns" crowd, I just don't buy this brand new explanation the gov't seems to have pulled from their collective asses.

Mikey1969
Mikey1969

@ray.stern @Mikey1969 What I'm talking about is the "Well, they were shooting, and there was smoke nearby" type of stories, of which there was more than one in the 8 'for sure' fires you listed, if I recall correctly. "Smoke nearby" is NOT conclusive proof that the shooting itself caused the fire.

I will not argue about tracer rounds and incendiary rounds though. That's just stupid shit... I think there were two that you listed where the shooters said that the smoke came from right next to the target area, those are harder to argue, but when the Forest Service says it's near an area where shooting occurs and seemingly leaves it at that, or that the smoke was "near"(As in the one where the people said that it wasn't even the spot where they were shooting, I'm a little suspect.

I don't know what this big drive to blame the fires on a new source is, but as I mentioned they're trying to throw car engines in there, too. Not sparks, just hot engine blocks. Maybe there was some pressure to find a cause other than out of control campfires and inconsiderate smokers, or maybe they decided they just can't have any more "unexplained" fires, but whatever it is, these are the two new poster children. I think they were trying to throw in trailer chains recently, and then realized that those (usually) spark over a paved road, which isn't really full of flammable material.

The "car" explanation is far more laughable than the shooting one, but the shooting one seems to be based on a bunch of speculation, or "well it happened nearby, so that MUST be the cause" bullshit.

marcy
marcy

@ray.stern @coyotejoe  

They started ONE fire out of 500 bullets they fired into a box of dried peat moss.  

Dried peat moss is the sort of tinder you can use to start a fire with a steel flint.  It takes work, including just the right wind conditions.

 Fortunately there aren't any boxes of dried peat moss sitting out in the wilderness that shooters are shooting into.

Next up, proof that throwing rocks can ignite forest fires demonstrated by throwing rocks really hard into boxes of dried peat moss.

There is absolutely ZERO evidence that ANY wilderness fire has EVER been started by shooters shooting non-incendiary rounds.  

marcy
marcy

@KennyKiklar  

She doesn't have a source because it isn't true.  There were ZERO Utah fires proven to be caused by target shooting last year. 

 

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