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.