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Are Shooters To Blame for Western Wildfires?

Shooters have been blamed for starting a number of fires recently in tinder-dry western states, where conflagrations have erupted near shooting ranges. One, Arizona's Sunflower Fire, has been positively traced to irresponsible members of a bachelor party who fired an incendiary shotgun shell into the underbrush:

The Sunflower Fire -- which has burned nearly 18,000 acres of the Tonto National Forest and is not fully contained -- began in mid-May after five Arizona men gathered to celebrate the upcoming May 19 nuptials of Bryan Reeder. The group -- all in their mid-20s -- traveled from Mesa to the Sycamore Creek area for a weekend “campout and bachelor party,” according to court records.

On Saturday, May 12, the quintet awoke and “began to target shoot in an area close to their camp,” a United States Forest Service agent reported in a sworn affidavit. About two hours into the target shooting, Craig Shiflet ... loaded an “incendiary shotgun shell” into his Remington 12 gauge and fired the round.

Tyler Pace, another bachelor party attendee, told investigators that after Shiflet fired the round, he “noticed smoke in the brush just behind” where the round landed in vegetation. Pace said the entire group “ran over to where the smoke was and noticed fire, which they unsuccessfully attempted to stomp out.”

Shiflet called 911 to report the blaze, but by then it was too late. He now faces charges for triggering the blaze.

The Salt Lake Tribune claims that 20 wildfires have been triggered by irresponsible shooters in Utah, including the Saratoga Springs Fire and the Dump Fire, but provides no support for the claim. A New York Times report cites the same figure, crediting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as its source.

The BLM web site on Utah's fires does not provide the specificity of the triggers of manmade fires, but records 393 so far this year in the state burning more than 99,000 acres. If these statistics are true, shooters have accounted for just 5% of the fires in the state, making them an odd scapegoat for what appears to be a low-level push by media outlets to restrict shooting on public lands.

What are the facts behind these claims?

Even in dry conditions, the risk of triggering fires by shooting with normal lead or jacketed lead bullets is low. Lead and the soft metals used to "jacket" (encase) bullets are not metals that will spark when they hit earth or brush.

There are, however, fire risks associated with some kinds of ammunition in a specific range of conditions. Steel core ammunition -- typically military surplus ammunition from overseas -- can spark momentarily against rocks and minerals, and if that rock is in tinder-dry underbrush the possibility for a fire does exist. Likewise, incendiary ammunition -- typically military tracer or civilian tracer training rounds -- can spark fires in dry brush.

As fellow PJ Media contributor Robert Zubrin notes, however, the mismanagement of wildlife resources has done more to contribute to the conditions to create wildfires than any shooter has:

As I write these lines, vast wildfires are sweeping through my home state of Colorado and other areas of the American West. Last week, two of my employees had to leave work early to rush home to evacuate their families from imminent danger. Hundreds of houses have already been destroyed, and thousands of acres of trees incinerated, and unknown myriads of wild animals burned alive.

This disaster was predictable, and promises to get worse. Over the past decade, from British Columbia to New Mexico, the world’s most rapid deforestation has been underway in the North American West, with an average of nearly six million acres of forest lost per year -- roughly double the three million acres per year rate in Brazil. The culprits here, however, have not been humans, but Western Pine Beetles, whose epidemic spread has turned over 60 million acres of formerly evergreen pine forests into dead red tinder, dry ammunition awaiting any spark to flare into catastrophe.

Yet while the global green movement has made a cause célèbre of the Amazon rain forest, they have done nothing to oppose those destroying our woods. Quite the contrary, they have been doing everything in their power to assist the wreckers. Indeed, over the past decade they have launched over a thousand lawsuits to block every attempt by the National Forest Service or others to take necessary counter measures.

"Green" activists have not only contributed to forest fires by creating the conditions for tree-killing beetles to thrive by fighting logging efforts, but also through refusing to let wildfires run their natural course and restricting prescribed burns that are designed to reduce the threat of uncontrolled fires by burning away tinder-dry underbrush.

If the media wants to place blame where blame belongs for western wildfires, the shooters that sparked just 5% of the blazes are the least of their worries. The so-called environmentalists that ultimately contribute to the tinder-dry conditions fueling the fires bear far more responsibility.