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Feds Charge Phoenix Cop for Starting Wildfire with Tracer Rounds

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Federal authorities have charged a Phoenix police officer and his cousin for setting off a wildfire near the ghost town of Cleator while target shooting with tracer ammunition.

Tom Sario, who has worked as a Phoenix officer for nine years, "is currently working on a non-enforcement position," says Sergeant Jonathan Howard, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department, adding that he can't say more because of an ongoing internal investigation into the April incident.

The officer and his cousin, Joshua Hawkins, have each been charged with causing a fire to burn and firing tracer ammunition on national forest land, according to a federal complaint filed on June 7.

The Cleator fire, as it became known, was held to 141 acres after a Prescott National Forest hotshot crew and slurry-dropping aircraft tackled it.

Tracer rounds contain a small amount of a pyrotechnic substance that burns brightly on the way to the target. They look really cool, flying across the landscape, and everyone knows it's stupid to shoot them in the bone-dry desert. Everyone except Sario and Hawkins, apparently.

According to court records, the two cousins and their friends were driving on a dirt road from Crown King on April 25 when the group stopped to shoot near Cleator, a defunct mining town that consists of a bar and one or two other occupied buildings. They saw a metal target someone else had placed on a hill and began shooting a 9mm weapon at it. After they shot a total of four rounds, smoke and flames began rising from the target area. Sario tried unsuccessfully to put it out. Hawkins called 911.

Then, without giving their names to the 911 operator, they hightailed it out of there.

Witnesses in Cleator heard the shots, saw the smoke, and saw four vehicles drive through town, "leaving the area at a high rate of speed," according to the court file. The manager at the Cleator bar managed to write down a couple of license-plate numbers.

Hawkins later told a Prescott National Forest investigator that the 911 operator told him they didn't need to give their names. He explained that he'd left in a rush because he had to drive a friend to the airport later that night.

A day later, Sario called the Crown King Fire Department and confessed that he and Hawkins had started the fire. Tucker Wood, a U.S. Forest Service law-enforcement officer, met them in Phoenix and took their statements on April 26. Sario's next court date is scheduled for June 28.

If convicted, he is unlikely to face prison time. While at an outdoor bachelor party in 2012, Mesa resident Craig Shiflet fired an incendiary shotgun shell at some brush, sparking an 18,000-acre wildfire. Shiflet wound up with probation and a $2,000 fine. The fire cost $4.4 million to put out.

Federal authorities urge caution when firing guns outdoors, noting that recreational shooting with normal ammunition can cause a wildfire by throwing sparks on dry tinder.

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