Summer wildfire risk high, experts urge caution with firearms, fireworks

Published: Friday, June 1 2012 5:26 p.m. MDT

Ryan Porter fires his .38 Special handgun in an unrestricted area on west side of Utah Lake Friday, June 1, 2012. Law enforcement are restricting shooting after a fire had burned more 1,000 acres late Friday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Target practice ended early for Zach Nielsen and his father Friday morning when officials closed a three-mile stretch of road near state Route 68 west of Utah Lake where a fire burned more than 1,000 acres.

The road was closed to allow firefighters to get ahead of the fire that was about 20 percent contained by noon Friday. It was the third fire in two days in the area, and officials said all were started by target shooting.

Jason Curry, Utah Division of Forestry spokesman, said the latest fire is believed to have been ignited by sparks from the target shooting ammunition of two men - not the Nielsens. Aided by winds, the fire spread. 

"A fire emerged right where their target was and the wind quickly made that fire to well over 20 acres," he said. "In fact, right now, we're looking at more than 1,000 acres."

Fire season started early this year, and with a growing number of wildfires igniting in surprising ways — including heat from motor vehicles and sparks from fireworks and firearms — experts hope people will be extra cautious outdoors.

Teresa Rigby, fire prevention specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, said fires caused by firearms have become more widespread the past 10 years.

"It's not always on peoples' minds because it hasn't always been as prevalent as it is," she said.

The rise in wildfires caused by target shooting is a result of shooters using ammunition with steel jackets and cores as opposed to those made of lead, Rigby said.

"There are a lot of places in the desert that are popular for target shooting that are hotbeds for wildfire," she said.

Various local and federal land management agencies are considering target shooting restrictions that could lower the risk of wildfire, Rigby said, but even without legal restrictions, it's vital that target shooters exercise caution.

"Just because it's legal in the state doesn't mean it won't start a wildfire," she said.

The best prevention is choosing safe locations to shoot. "Consider going to a range or finding an alternate location" instead of areas with high wildfire risk, she said.

Target shooters should be prepared by bringing a shovel, fire extinguisher and extra water "beyond drinking water," Rigby said. If a fire does start, call 911 immediately.

The risk of wildfires this year is higher than normal because precipitation levels were lower. That impacts soil saturation.

"Normally in May, we don't experience as many wildfires or as large wildfires that we've seen this year," Rigby said.

Lisa Lowery, a homeowner about half a mile from an area used by target shooters, says errant bullets from these makeshift shooting ranges are as big a threat as fire.

"We don't want to see a permanent closure, we want to see a safe, controlled range," Lowery said. "How many bullets in your bedroom does it take for you to consider it an emergency?"

Lowery said there are at least six bullets that have hit her house and one on Monday flew between her and her husband as they were putting a fence up in their front yard.

"I heard the bullet whistle past," Lowery said. "It was just a matter of a little bit this way or a little bit that way, one of us wouldn't be here."

In addition to firearms, vehicles and fireworks can start wildfires. Even without a spark, a fire can start, Rigby said, noting the heat of vehicles in an area with dry grass can be enough. Vehicles pulling off the side of a road have ignited fires as hot catalytic converters come in contact with grasses.

Fireworks are prohibited on federal lands, but Rigby said that doesn't stop some people.

"They know that they'll get caught if they stay in town," she said.

In March, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a law limiting the time fireworks can be used to the week surrounding the Fourth of July and the week surrounding the July 24th Pioneer Day celebration. Previously, fireworks could be shot off anytime between June 26 to July 26.

"We know that fireworks are a popular way to celebrate holidays, but we stress they need to be used carefully," said Jason Asay, spokesman for the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

Asay said people should only set off fireworks in open areas away from other people, buildings or dry vegetation, and they should be prepared with a garden hose or bucket of water. After fireworks are used, they should be soaked in water and left in an outdoor, covered and fireproof container, he said.

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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