PROVO — For everyone who thinks shooting dirt clods and metal signs in Utah County this summer will be fun, think again.

Utah County commissioners declared a state of emergency in the county on Tuesday and placed a temporary ban on the use of all firearms in unincorporated territory because of an increased fire risk. For 30 days from Tuesday, the only shooting going on in Utah County should be in a firing range, said Utah County Sheriff James Tracy.

"This is not an anti-gun effort in any way," Tracy said. "I'm an NRA member. I shoot and I recreate with firearms myself, but we're asking the public to help mitigate an issue that has already caused millions of dollars of damage to the county."

The ban, which does not apply to any federal lands, such as National Forest Service territory, also includes fireworks and open fires.

Several recent costly and dangerous fires in Utah County — including the recently contained Mercer fire near Lake Mountain — were ignited with gunshots.

However, county officials didn't consider declaring a fire emergency until two weeks ago, when a faulty lawnmower started a fire in the foothills above Provo.

The fire burned so quickly that planes were called into dump fire retardant on the flames — at a cost of $3,000-$8,000 per load. Since the fire was on county land, a majority of the bill will come back to the county government, which is expected, but there's only so many fires the county can pay for.

"We had a wet spring that allowed those cheat grasses to grow to a significant size, but we didn't have a lot of snow in the winter to back up the moisture, and we haven't had any rain," Tracy said. "Everything's dried out, and it's just, you look at (the grass) sideways and it wants to catch on fire. ... Our emphasis is to limit the exposure to the types of activities that could start another fire."

Tracy says the sheriff's firing range in Thistle will be opened to the public for free to offer an alternative to shooting in a potentially hazardous area.

Starting Saturday, the range will be open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

After July 20, the range will also be open on Fridays from 5-9 p.m. The range is at 12814 S. Highway 89 in Spanish Fork Canyon, near the old Thistle town site and near the confluence of Thistle Creek and Soldier Creek.

Those found shooting outside of a range in the county will first be warned, then cited with a misdemeanor, Tracy says.

Tracy and other Utah County officials say they don't remember a time when the county has issued such a ban.

"We don't take this lightly," said Utah County Commissioner Gary Anderson. "There are those of us who love to shoot our guns, but I think the state of the fire condition in this state and this county calls for drastic measures. We don't take it lightly, and we are serious. We're already beyond our limits (in fighting fires) and we need to do something."

The restriction will be in effect for 30 days, at which point the County Commission will consider lifting or extending the ban. If conditions significantly improve before the 30 days expire, the commission may consider lifting the ban sooner, but Commissioner Larry Ellertson said he doesn't think such a swift change is likely.

"(It's possible) we're not going to lift this for the rest of the summer, because even rain won't make what's out there go away," Ellertson said.

Norman Van Wagenen, owner of Van Wagenen Finance — an Orem store that sells guns — says he doesn't think the ban will have much of an impact on recreational shooting.

"It really isn't a big deal because most of the residents go farther out to shoot anyway," Van Wagenen said. "I don't see (the restrictions) as a big problem for me, selling guns and ammunition. We know why (the ban was approved), there's a risk of fires. I understand and believe they should (pass a restriction). They should have done it sooner, but luckily we haven't had a really bad situation in Utah County yet."


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