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Keep up with the latest news about wildfires in Utah.

From Finger To The Flame: How Target Shooting Cause Wildfires

Renee Bright
Matthew DeLong is a firearms instructor and physics professor at the University of Utah. He explains that it’s not the gun itself that starts the fire, it’s the combination of the bullet and what it hits.

This year could be one of the worst wildfire seasons in Utah’s history. The leading cause? People.

Wildfires can start in a variety of ways — abandoned campfires, parking cars or using machinery near dry vegetation, fireworks and target shooting.

Let’s take a closer look at that last one.

Even though guns aren’t the most common way people start fires, they have been the cause of at least 10 events in Utah so far this year and 64 in 2020. Target shooting in Utah County last October caused the Range Fire which burned nearly 3,500 acres and forced evacuations for residents near Provo Canyon.

Some may think it’s a hot bullet that goes spiraling out of the barrel of a gun that causes fires — especially if it lands in dry vegetation. However, the bullet itself is not hot enough to do that, according to Jason Curry, the investigations chief with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

gun animation final 2.mp4

A series of actions inside of a gun builds pressure to push the bullet out of the barrel, giving it kinetic energy. It’s the friction created when that bullet strikes a metal target or solid rock off in the distance that creates problems.

“If it’s nighttime, you're going to see a shower of sparks, or not necessarily sparks per se, but a shower of glowing, hot, tiny fragments of lead and or copper that are more than hot enough to start a fire,” Curry said.

That’s the case for both steel and lead bullets. But there is even more dangerous ammunition out there. Tracer or incendiary rounds, which catch fire so the shooter can see the trajectory, are illegal in Utah. Curry said they’re still something people use though.

“Those will cause fire almost every time if they land in receptive fuels,” he said.

And sometimes people use exploding targets. These are made of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder and they blow up when hit by a bullet. They’re also prohibited on state and federal land, as well as most counties this year.

Curry said the state isn’t asking people to stop using firearms outdoors altogether. But, he said, people do need to be more careful.

Especially now that the state is in the midst of its worst drought in over 50 years. Even though a bullet landing in grasses can’t start a fire, Utah’s record-dry vegetation is extremely receptive to any kind of spark. Matt Bekker, a geography professor at Brigham Young University, said that’s the case for small grasses and shrubs to larger trees in the mountains.

“Given the small amount of snowpack and the low rainfall in the spring, the grasses in areas where they're not being irrigated … are probably already dead and completely dried out,” Bekker said. “You aren't going to catch a stump on fire immediately with a sort of small spark, but those fine fuels will catch on fire immediately and that can build up and catch the larger stuff on fire.”

Range Fire Utah Fire Info Twitter.jpeg
Utah Fire Info
The Range Fire sparked Oct. 17 at the Orem Police Gun Range. It grew to nearly 3,500 acres and forced evacuations in Provo Canyon.

This year’s drought is top of mind for Clark Aposhian, a gun lobbyist in Utah. He said he takes a lot of factors into account before going out target shooting.

“I'm certainly not going to, regardless of the day, shoot in any dry grasses because dry grasses, heat, low humidity and wind are just not a good idea to be shooting in because you can't control every spark,” he said.

Aposhian is also the chair of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, a gun rights group in the state. In a recent letter he sent to members, he urged them to be cautious and to protect Utah’s lands. In it he said “we literally can prevent forest fires.”

Aposhian said this is the first time his group has ever issued this kind of warning. The letter is an effort to help cut down on human-caused fires, but he also doesn’t want any further restrictions put on gun owners.

“We're trying to get in front of prohibiting legislation — legislation that would mandate certain things, legislation that would further encroach on our rights and we wanted to do this as a peer group,” Aposhian said.

Debris burning, using equipment near dry vegetation and campfires typically cause more wildfire events than target shooting, according to state fire data.

But as Aposhian sees it, this is something he can control.

“We can't really do anything about people and trailers and we can't do anything about campfires,” he said. “We don't have that audience listening to us, but we do have the gun-owning and shooting audience listening to us.”

Bekker said everyone recreating outdoors — whether they’re target shooting or not — should consider if it’s worth it this year.

“Think about needs versus wants,” he said. “There are often things that we think are needs, but really the vast majority of those are wants. And we're going to have to think about prioritizing those.”

For those still wanting to shoot outside, Aposhian and Curry agree the first step is knowing current conditions and acting accordingly.

The National Weather Service issues red flag warnings when there’s extreme fire danger from high wind and heat as well as low humidity. Curry said he regularly goes out target shooting with friends and family, unless he sees a warning announced.

“That's just the day to call it off,” he said. “Stay home. It's just not worth the risk.”

KUER’s Tim Slover and Renee Bright contributed to the audio and animation of this piece.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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