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.
Target Shooting a Major Cause of Arizona Forest Fires
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.
"Is there any target shooting allowed?" he asks.
He looks ticked when Hanna tells him about fire restrictions, but he turns his vehicle back toward the highway.
Arizona is a right-to-shoot state, or so our leaders would have us believe.
As New Times' February 14 cover story about the state's love of guns ("'Til Death Do Us Part") explained, Arizona's Republican lawmakers routinely respond to news of mass shootings by passing pro-gun laws. Although the state's per-capita gun ownership is surprisingly low, the Wild West feel of our gun culture can't be denied. Some people move to Arizona from states with tough firearms laws and promptly buy a gun, encouraged by statutes that allow nearly anyone to carry a concealed weapon.
All these enthusiastic firearms lovers need places to shoot, and unbridled outdoor shooting is an ingrained tradition in the West.
Not on all public lands, though. Arizona decided long ago it wouldn't put up with the activity on vast state-trust lands, which by law are held for sale to help fund schools. Hunting is allowed on state lands, but plinking (shooting at the likes of cans, bottles, or paper targets) isn't. If you want a good place to destroy, suggests the Arizona Game and Fish website, try federal wildlands.
The state agency "recommends target shooting at organized shooting ranges," the site's Q&A on shooting reads. "It is safer and better for the environment and leaves much less litter. [But] it is legal to target-practice on some federal lands, Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands."
Though legal, there is no question that federal policy over the years has led to the rampant destruction of many acres of Sonoran hillside, because of the firing of millions of bullets. All users of such land have some effect on it. Off-roading causes even worse damage than shooting, officials like Hanna agree. But the firearms problem requires special measures, they insist.
The current seasonal restrictions began in 2001, the same year the Tonto closed more than 80,000 acres to target shooting permanently. Karl Siderits, then the Tonto's supervisor, was criticized roundly for the decision, which he based on the severe scarring of some areas and the possibility of accidental shootings (areas bordering Valley cities had become congested with people engaging in various outdoor activities).
Local gun-rights activists believe the closures and seasonal bans may be part of a concerted effort by federal authorities to marginalize guns, on the way to European-style anti-firearms laws. Gun supporters view with suspicion the increasing emphasis federal authorities place on fires said to be caused by target shooting. Though they acknowledge that certain fires are started by people who recklessly use fire-prone items, such as exploding targets or steel-cored ammunition, they believe the feds exaggerate the number of shooting-caused wildfires.
Federal officials, meanwhile, say the problem is very real — and is increasing across the West.
Maybe it's drought conditions, or maybe it's the ever-growing population of Western states (slowed only temporarily by the Great Recession) that has led to more problems of urban encroachment on wildlands. But shooters are less tolerant of their sport getting blamed for wildfires, perhaps the greatest threat facing the cherished wilderness of the modern West.
The June deaths of 19 men fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire should leave no doubt that wildfires can be merciless killers and destroyers of homes and ecosystems. Though the recent tragedy is believed to have been sparked by lightning, shooting has been the cause of at least one major fire this year in the Prescott National Forest: The Doce Fire, which began in a well-used shooting area known as Doce Pit and charred more than 7,000 acres. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, in their final days, had been among those working the Doce.
A year earlier, a shooting-related blaze caused an even bigger fire. The 18,000-acre Sunflower Fire in the Tonto near Payson began after a 25-year-old from Mesa made the wildly bad decision of shooting a flame-spewing incendiary round from a shotgun into some bushes.
As of late May in the Tonto, a 3-million-acre national forest that sprawls from Cave Creek to Globe to north of Payson, eight wildfires are believed to have been caused this year by target shooting. According to a list released by the feds, 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.
Arizona isn't the only state facing the problem — or involved in the debate. Land managers and firearms supporters have clashed on the issue in Utah, where the Legislature voted last year to allow more seasonal restrictions on target shooting on state land. For the second year in a row, target shooting is restricted this year in Washington's Wenas Wildlife Area after "bullets sparked wildfires," according to a news release. Last year, Elko County (Nevada) Commissioner 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. BLM land over a recent 10-year period, making shooting the number-one human-related cause.
Williams wrote that he didn't question the researcher's findings but rather the "validity of the criteria used by federal and state agencies to determine the cause of these fires."
Activists have jumped on a lack of data on the issue, incredulous that typical lead bullets causing sparks could start so many fires. A Forest Service study released in May showed it's "possible" for bullets to cause fires, but the service acknowledges that extensive data is lacking.
Contrary to the position of shooting enthusiasts, the existing evidence, though inconclusive, suggests the feds are right.
The facts indicate that the desert is so dry that the slightest spark can set it ablaze, and that bullets striking rocks or other material sometimes produce sparks.
With thousands of people firing guns in Arizona's outdoors nearly every day, what gun enthusiasts call the "freak accident" of a shooting-caused wildfire has become commonplace.
Except during fire season, ample square miles of national forest and BLM lands in Arizona are available for blasting firearms. You can fire away with abandon if you are at least a quarter-mile from any house, campsite, or otherwise occupied area, are not shooting across a road, aren't blowing holes in cactus, aren't creating a danger to anyone, and aren't littering.
Phoenix-area residents, minutes away from these sites, have a convenient outlet for using guns legally that most American urban dwellers don't. And if you believe firearms activists, the federal government wants to take it all away.
Blaming destructive and potentially deadly wildfires on guns is a relatively new political tactic to diminish gun rights, says Tucson's Todd Rathner, the National Rifle Association's representative in Arizona.
"Land managers, in general, used to be hunters and grew up ranching," Rathner says. "Now, public-land managers largely are of a preservationist mindset."
He maintains that forestland officials overstate the fire risk of shooting because they'd like to ban all activities that damage the landscape: "They basically want to keep it just for the critters. I moved to the West to be able to shoot and have less restrictions on me. Shouldn't there be some places in America where you can go and let loose with your guns and be safe about it, [where] nobody is standing over you, hounding you?"
Rathner ties the seasonal closures and warnings about gun-caused wildfires to the politics raging in Washington over general restrictions to recreational shooting on federal lands, and to the firearms debate in general.
Even casual news watchers know about this year's epic battle over gun safety, driven by 2012's mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut. It ended with the failure of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to pass even a proposal to strengthen background checks for gun purchases. Less known was a story in late 2011 about an Interior Department plan to implement sweeping new restrictions on shooting and hunting within BLM or Forest Service borders in states such as Arizona.
The situation spurred Arizona U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, then a congressman, to sponsor a bill he called the Recreational Shooting Protection Act, which aimed to prevent the BLM from restricting shooting on national monument lands for at least six months of the year.
Arizona Congressman Trent Franks reacted by proposing a land swap that would take 315 acres from the BLM in Mohave County and give it to Arizona for use as a public shooting range.
"Mohave County has experienced rapid growth over the last few years, and traditional locations for target shooting are now too close to populated areas for safety," he told reporters last year.
Both bills died in committee. But the BLM backed down, releasing a management plan that allows target shooting in the Sonoran Desert National Monument in southern Arizona.
In February, though, the BLM banned plinking in the 129,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson because of damage to cactus, trees, and petroglyphs.
Jim Schmidt, owner of Arizona Ammunition in southern Arizona and maker of rifle ammo, is among those predicting eventual year-round bans. He notes that the government, in response to concerns about lead-poisoned condors, encourage the use of copper bullets, which cause more sparks than lead, the recent study showed. Eventually, they'll reach their "goal" of banning all hunting and shooting on federal lands, he believes.
"I guess next will be arrows with metal tips," he says.
Like Rathner, Scottsdale author and activist Alan Korwin wonders whether the claim of shooting-caused fires is a prelude to more closures.
John King, a partner at the Valley-based Blue Rhino Targets, says he and his friends have "shot thousands of rounds, and we've never even seen something smoldering." That's using the company's steel targets, he says, and the occasional use of steel ammo.
The Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association has worked with the Forest Service in the past few years to get the word out about the potential fire danger related to shooting. But the group's president, Landis Aden, has his doubts that fires are started by sparks from bullets.
"It's possible," he says. "We've been hearing that all through the western states. We've never seen any documented instances of it."
According to public records, however, plenty of witnesses have seen it happen.
The Sunflower Fire near Sycamore Creek made headlines statewide for its size and nationwide for its cause.
During a bachelor party on the morning of May 12, 2012, in a desert region of the Tonto east of Mesa, Steven Craig Shiflet picked up a shotgun loaded with incendiary rounds. A label on the box the rounds came from warned that the ammo "shoots 100 feet of fire, setting everything in its path ablaze. Warning: Extreme FIRE HAZARD."
After he shot the fateful round, which worked as advertised, he and his buddies tried unsuccessfully to stomp out the blaze. Shiflet later was indicted on three misdemeanor counts related to the fire. He was sentenced to probation in April and fined $2,000. The government didn't bother to make him pay restitution toward firefighting costs, estimated at $7.3 million.
This wasn't a typical target-shooting fire, though. Nor was it the type of incident from which most people can learn, because Shiflet's actions were so reckless. It doesn't take a chemist to figure out that shooting an incendiary in a tinder-rich, drought-plagued desert can cause a fire. Same goes for tracer rounds or exploding targets (always banned in the Tonto) that can be found for sale at some shooting-supply stores — although one popular exploding-target maker, Oregon's Tannerite Company, claims its product cannot cause fire.
Blazes blamed on target shooting by Tonto National Forest officials have a much less understood origin.
In May, forest officials released a list of "target shooting correlated fires" from October 1, 2009, to May 17, 2012. The list includes one fire in 2009, seven in 2010, 10 in 2011, and five in 2012.
A Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Service for the investigative reports on the 23 fires (except for the report on the Sunflower Fire, the cause of which isn't in doubt) revealed that the feds actually have solid evidence in eight cases.
In the remaining 15, the only reason for the label of "target shooting correlated" is because they started on or near a known target-shooting area and because almost all other causes for the fires were ruled out.
In those 15, there are no stated signs of incendiary or steel ammo, or exploding targets. It's as if someone just held a lighter to the tinder — or, as the feds theorize, sparks from the act of shooting ignited grass, brush, or litter.
Two of the eight evidenced fires in the reports had witnesses.
On May 9, 2011, in a well-used shooting area near the Picketpost Trail in the Tonto's Globe Ranger District, a shooter finished up a volley using .223-caliber ammo, typical for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, and laid the gun on a table. Looking downrange at where he'd been shooting, a grassy spot above a denuded berm that had been used by countless previous shooters, the unidentified man "saw flames and smoke coming from [the] impact area," the report says.
"A bullet-strike spark . . . started this fire," wrote the unnamed investigator.
The shooter was cited for causing grass and brush to burn, but the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office declined to prosecute because of a lack of criminal intent.
In a similar case about a year earlier, on June 26, 2010, two men shooting at a cement block with an AR-15 noticed smoke rising to one side of their position. The fire quickly grew too big to put out, and the men called 911. The Corral Fire was stopped after it had burned 30 acres, and the man who admitted to shooting just before the fire was cited. His name, like many others from the investigative reports, was blacked out by the Forest Service.
Besides the Sunflower, five other wildfire probes appeared to nail down origins:
• Four Fire, May 1, 2010 — Rangers admit that they don't know how it started, but they believe it was caused by a ricochet off a metal target 20 feet from the fire's point of origin. Three people admitted to shooting an AR-15, a 7.62-millimeter Mosin Nagant rifle, and a handgun just before the fire started, but one said the fire didn't start near where they aiming. All three were cited.
• Boulder Fire, May 5, 2012 — Witnesses reported that a fire started a few feet from where people were shooting against a boulder backstop.
• Peak Fire, June 23, 2011 — Shooters admitted they caused the fire.
• 411 Fire, March 23, 2011 — The fire is believed to have been caused by tracer bullets fired at a steel plate on a stick.
• Dam Fire, April 21, 2012 — Tracer round shells and live tracer rounds were recovered at the scene.
The other 15 reports don't contain such clear causes. In some cases, witnesses reported seeing or hearing target shooters in the vicinity of a fire. Some get the label of "target shooting correlated" because no other origin can be determined.
The reports show that the feds are quick to pin fires in shooting areas on bullets. For instance, an investigator wrote that the Semper Fire on November 10, 2010, was "caused by" target shooting. The report also states: "no evidence collected."
Yet if target shooters caused the 15 fires, none of them stuck around to own up to it. Perhaps some of the fires didn't produce much smoke at first and weren't noticed by the shooters until after they left the area. Perhaps some shooters realized things had gotten out of hand and hightailed it.
Despite gun enthusiasts' claims to the contrary, Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor of fire science, tells New Times that "sparks cast by ricocheting bullets is an entirely believable scenario" as the origin of wildfires. He adds, "They aren't called firearms for nothing."
Jim Upchurch, supervisor for the Coronado Forest near Tucson, also doesn't need much convincing that sparks ignite dry areas.
"We had a fire the other day that started from a horse walking on a rock with his horseshoes," Upchurch says.
Areas not used by target shooters seem to have fewer fire problems, he says.
While potential fire-causing activities like horseback riding aren't totally forbidden during fire season — as shooting is — Upchurch believes the measures are prudent. The fire restrictions banning shooting are practiced on all national forests and on BLM lands in Arizona, whose managers agreed on the standard.
"There's no conspiracy there," he adds. "It's just our practice. Maybe we've emphasized it more this year because we've been having quite a few starts with target shooting."
New evidence supports the feds' theories.
In May, the Forest Service released a four-page report on experiments conducted in January by its Rocky Mountain Research Station and National Technology and Development Centers. Researchers shot several varieties of 7.62-millimeter and .223-caliber ammo (typically used in AK-47s, AR-15s, and similar rifles) into steel targets that deflected the bullet fragments into a box of dried peat moss. Nearly 500 rounds in total were fired.
The conclusion: "Ignition from rifle bullets impacting hard surfaces is possible under critical weather conditions and with a receptive fuel bed in close proximity."
Bullets made from steel components — either steel core or steel jacket — and solid copper bullets caused ignitions "consistently," with some fragments estimated to have reached 1,400 degrees Farenheit.
"Lead-core/copper-jacketed bullets were less likely to cause ignition," the study states, referring to the most common kind of bullets. (The "jacket" is the metal wrapped around a bullet, which usually is made of lead.)
Mark Finney, research forester for the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana, says lead-core/copper-jacketed bullets sparked just one ignition in all the rounds they fired. However, he adds that steel-jacketed bullets, often called bi-metal-jacketed on the ammo box and imported from former Soviet bloc countries, are "very common low-cost ammunition" these days for many kinds of firearms. Such ammo may appear to be copper-jacketed, he says, because the steel jacket is copper-plated.
Full details of the study are expected to be released this week.
Some uncertainty over the issue remains, Finney says.
"Most target shooters, like myself, have never started a fire," he says.
The Forest Service plans to follow up the laboratory study with a larger field study, possibly next year.
Probably no amount of evidence would convince the skeptical gun lobby that guns cause fires. The question now is what should be done about the potentially catastrophic problem.
Early last year, a 14-year-old boy riding his ATV in a desert area of Buckeye was hit in the leg by a bullet believed to have been fired by a target shooter. But, surprisingly, incidents of people shot by the stray bullets of desert plinkers in Arizona are rare.
Other places with open target-shooting areas next to cities haven't been so lucky. Unsupervised target shooting was banned entirely in California's Angeles National Forest in the 1990s following several accidental deaths.
Clearly, federal wildlands will impose more restrictions on shooting in the future as the population of Arizona and the Phoenix metro area continue to grow — it's just a matter of when. From the possibility of accidental shootings to trash problems to wildfires, target shooting is a sport that affects other land users in ways that, say, hiking does not.
Solutions that have been discussed by federal officials include designating some parts of the Tonto as unsupervised shooting areas (while presumably banning other areas at the same time). Hanna, the Tonto ranger, notes that no rules (barring fire restrictions) now restrict shooters from creating new makeshift ranges on pristine hillsides, as long as it's just rocks and dirt getting pulverized.
The state Rifle and Pistol Association, working with the Tucson Rod and Gun Club, submitted an application this year to the Coronado National Forest to build and maintain an outdoor range. Upchurch says his office is working with the groups on the proposal.
Pro-gun activists like Rathner remain wary of any talk of changes by the feds. In 2001, Rathner says, Tonto officials told him and others that there was "no way" they could permanently lock out tens of thousands of acres to shooting. And then they proceeded to do just that.
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For now, shooters — and those who wish to see more shooting restrictions in the desert, for whatever reasons — have to trust the word of Neil Bosworth, current Tonto supervisor, who says officials are "very aware of the increased pressure all recreational activities have on the natural environment" but that no major changes are pending. Federal land agencies are working on a "Tread Lightly" education plan for shooters, and a new management plan for off-road travel is in development that may be approved next year, he says.
Federal officials know shooting is a sensitive subject, and they say they support the activity despite its accompanying problems.
Yet wildfires are expected to become a bigger problem in Arizona's future as climate change takes hold. A shooting-caused fire that results in the deaths of firefighters, as the lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill Fire did, would be a PR disaster for gun enthusiasts. The issue could become the biggest excuse the feds can employ to close U.S. lands to all gun users except hunters.