Wildfire briefing, February 27, 2013

Fire burns 407 acres near Lone Pine, California

Map of River FireCAL FIRE expects to fully contain the River Fire on Thursday which has burned 407 acres east of Lone Pine, California. Thick brush and winds measured at 25 mph challenged the 500 firefighters that initially fought the blaze after it started on Sunday. Remaining on the fire Wednesday morning are 234 personnel, 11 engines, 6 crews, and 2 water tenders. CAL FIRE is calling it 85 percent contained.

Oregon may regulate exploding targets and sky lanterns

A bill has been introduced in the Oregon legislature, HB 3199, that would prohibit the use of sky lanterns (or fire balloons), exploding targets, and tracer ammunition on land within the boundaries of a forest protection district. (UPDATE: the bill was signed by the Governor and will take effect January 1, 2014.)

“Concealed carry is a right, target shooting is not”

Those were the words of Utah state senator Margaret Dayton who resurrected her bill that would give the state forester the authority to ban target shooting on state lands during periods of enhanced wildfire danger. Earlier she withdrew the bill after it received criticism from some shooting enthusiasts. The bill passed the Senate this week along with another that would allow firefighters to access water on privately owned land to aid them in fire suppression efforts.

According to Utah State Forester Dick Buehler, of the 1,528 fires in the state in 2012, 33 were caused by target shooting which cost over $16 million to suppress. In October, 2012 when we wrote about the increasing number of fires started by target shooters using exploding targets, we found 10 fires started by these devices in Utah over a 5-month period last year. One of them burned over 5,500 acres.

Colorado Senate considers legislation regulating prescribed fires

A bill is speeding through the Colorado Senate that would add safeguards to prescribed fires conducted in the state. Senate Bill 13-083 would:

  • Establish control over prescribed burning within the Division of Fire Prevention and Control in the Department of Public Safety;
  • “Prescribed Burn Managers” must be certified by the Division for prescribed fires occurring on state lands or conducted by state agencies on private lands. This does not apply to “burning conducted by an agency of the federal government”;
  • A Prescribed Burn Manager must be on site during a prescribed burn “until the fire is adequately confined to reasonably prevent escape”;
  • Allows the Division to collect fees for providing training and certifications.

Getting manufactured crisis fatigue?

While the people we send to Washington to conduct the nation’s business have not passed a federal budget in four years, and they propel us from one manufactured crisis to another, some of us may tire of the hype as we reel from one ridiculous deadline to another. Unfortunately the impacts on the land management agencies from the budget cuts required by the sequester will be significant unless they are reversed within the next few weeks.

On October 13, we first wrote about the sequester, which will require federal wildland fire programs to be cut by at least $218 million, or 8.2 percent.

Here are some excerpts from an article at the Union Democrat with examples of impacts on the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service in California:

The Associated Press obtained a Park Service memo Friday that detailed some of the planned Yosemite cuts. Staff reductions would end guided ranger programs at Wawona and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, eliminate a program in which 3,500 volunteers provide 40,000 hours of activities and mean less frequent trash pickup due to loss of campground staff.

Park administrators fear that less frequent trash pickup would potentially attract bears into campgrounds.

Seasonal road closures like that of Tioga Road may be extended later than usual because there will be less staff available to clear snow.

“The reductions would limit the National Park Service’s ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season. Local communities and businesses that rely on recreation to support their livelihoods would face a loss of income from reduced visitation to national parks.”

In the Stanislaus National Forest, cuts could reduce funds available for fuels reductions that help prevent catastrophic forest fires. About $134 million in lost wildland fire management funds would lead to as many as 200,000 fewer acres treated nationwide, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter dated Feb. 5 to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Forest Service is also prepared to close up to 670 of 19,000 developed recreation sites nationwide, such as campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads, according to Vilsack.

Webinar today: Debunking Myths in Wildland Fire

Today from 1 until 2 p.m. MT:

Sarah McCaffrey will present findings from recent research on social issues of fire management with particular emphasis on the accuracy of various accepted truths about the public and fire management and the variables that actually are associated with approval of different fire management practices.

More info and registration details.

Thanks go out to George

Utah: update on bill to restrict target shooting during enhanced wildfire danger

The bill that Utah state senator Margaret Dayton withdrew after it received criticism from shooting enthusiasts will continue to be pushed through the legislative process, the senator announced on Thursday. The bill would give the state forester authority to temporarily restrict target shooting during periods of enhanced wildfire danger. The new version of the bill would stipulate that the ban could only be enacted with the support of the locally elected sheriff.

According to Utah State Forester Dick Buehler, of the 1,528 fires in the state in 2012, 33 were caused by target shooting which cost over $16 million to suppress. In October, 2012 when we wrote about the increasing number of fires started by target shooters using exploding targets, we found 10 fires started by these devices in Utah over a 5-month period last year. One of them burned over 5,500 acres.

Ban bird watching?

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.

[Senator Dayton] decided to hold the bill last week to try to iron out the differences, but the two sides couldn’t forge a compromise. [Utah Shooting Sports Council Chairman Clark] Aposhian didn’t attend Dayton’s press event Thursday.

“He did not agree to this,” Dayton said. “We didn’t ask the gun community to be present today. But we feel by working with Representative Curt Oda and the Sheriffs’ Association, we can help people understand these are intense efforts to protect Second Amendment rights.”

Aposhian said he wanted the bill to restrict access to everyone — not just target shooters.

“If it restricts gun owners from going there, then it should also restrict bird watchers,” he said. “It has to be closed to everybody.”.

 

Utah: bill withdrawn that would have restricted target shooting during high wildfire danger

A state Senator in Utah, worried that her proposed legislation would enrage the gun lobby, withdrew a bill that would have allowed the state to restrict target shooting on state-owned lands due to fire danger. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Deseret News:

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she is a gun owner who had no intention of interfering with anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

So when sparks were poised to fly over her legislative proposal empowering the state forester to restrict target shooting on state-owned lands due to fire danger, she backed off.

Dayton told her colleagues Friday on the floor of the Utah Senate she is not sure her bill, SB120, will be addressed this legislative session because she wants it to get a full airing before the public.

“They deserve a right to have their voices heard, especially those people who oppose the bill,” Dayton said afterward. “Gun issues are a touchy subject right now. As a gun owner, I understand that.”

Because of the relentless wave of wildfires — some started by target shooting — that burned through thousands of acres of state-owned land last year, State Forester Dick Buehler enacted a host of restrictions last July.

Some of those included bans on types of ammunition, while others shut down target shooting altogether in specific areas of Summit, Davis, Utah and Cache counties.

Because there was some question about the state forester’s ability to enact such a ban — pro-gun groups said the move was not only unwarranted but illegal — Dayton sought to have that authority clarified in state law.

In October, 2012 when we wrote about the increasing number of fires started by target shooters using exploding targets, we found 10 fires started by these devices in Utah over a 5-month period last year. One of them burned over 5,500 acres.

UPDATE February 3, 2013: The Salt Lake Tribune has more details about the death of the bill that would have limited target shooting during periods of high fire danger.

Logging slash may have smoldered for 18 months before igniting Utah wildfire

Church Camp fire
Church Camp fire, burnout along Highway 191. Photo credit: UT-FFSL

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that slash burned after a logging operation on state land 22 miles south of Duchesne, Utah may have smoldered for 18 months before igniting a wildfire that burned 7,211 acres in June, 2012. The Church Camp fire was discovered June 24 and caused the evacuation of Argyle Canyon, a popular summer cabin and recreation area for Salt Lake City residents. The fire destroyed 15 homes and was suppressed at a cost of $5.7 million.

The investigation report is not yet final, but cause and origin investigators for the Utah Division of Forestry said there is no evidence that lightning, arson, or anything else — except the 18-month old slash burn — could have started the fire. They admit that it is “highly unlikely” that the slash burn was the cause, but they can’t come up with a more likely cause.

From the Salt Lake Tribune:

…One cabin owner told investigators that two weeks before the Church Camp Fire ignited, he and his daughter visited the slash pile. The cabin owner said he stepped in a 1½-inch pile of fluffy white ash that appeared to have been recently burned. The cabin owner said he suspected dirt around the pile was helping retain heat.

Also, another slash pile burned in the fall of 2011 several miles west of the Church Camp Fire reignited in the spring. The report implies this is evidence the 18-month-old burned slash pile could have reignited, too.

 

DC-10 dropping on Church Camp Fire
DC-10 dropping on Church Camp Fire – InciWeb photo

Two men charged with starting 5,500-acre fire using exploding targets

Two men have been charged with starting the Dump Fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah that burned more than 5,500 acres and cost $2.1 million to put out. About 2,500 people were forced to evacuate.

Investigators say the men were shooting on June 21 when they hit an explosive target that started the fire in nearby vegetation. Identified as 37-year-old Kenneth Nielsen of Washington, Utah, and 42-year-old Jeffrey Conant of Woodinville, Washington, they were charged with misdemeanor reckless burning and using prohibited targets,

We first wrote about the surge in popularity of exploding targets and the increasing number of wildfires caused by these devices on October 11, 2012. In that article we listed 21 fires that were either confirmed or suspected to be caused by exploding targets since the first of June, 2012. And these are just the ones that we were able to find using Google.

Car destroyed by exploding target
Car destroyed by exploding target. Credit ABC7.com

These devices are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed at the site by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport. The manufacturers claim that the only way they can be detonated is by striking them with a high-velocity bullet fired from a high-powered center-fire rifle. At least one company has recently started offering targets that will explode when hit with a much less powerful .22 caliber rim-fire rifle.

Most of the wildfire community is only beginning to learn of of this disturbing trend.

Laws regulating the devices vary from state to state. CAL FIRE investigator Capt. Gregory Ewing, issued a safety bulletin following a June, 2012 fire in Riverside County that was started by exploding targets. He suggested that users of the targets could be charged with multiple felonies.

Possessing it with the intent to mix the two parts (thus creating an explosive) is a felony. Actually mixing the two parts is also a felony, and detonating it is yet another.

John N. Maclean, the author of several books about wildfires, in an October 18 OP-ED article on the New York Times’ web site, wrote about penalties that have been assessed against arsonists and others who have started wildfires. He briefly mentioned exploding targets:

Some practice shooters fire at exploding targets — store-bought canisters that blow up when pierced by a bullet. These are largely legal, but they should be banned immediately.

I agree with Mr. Maclean. It is ridiculous that these incendiary devices which have been demonstrated to be extremely dangerous in the hands of the average shooter, are legal. They should not only be illegal to transport after the two chemicals have been mixed, the kits to assemble them should not be legal to sell or possess.

Specific legislation is needed so that a person starting a fire with an exploding target can be charged with a crime that is more punitive than misdemeanor reckless burning or using prohibited targets, as was the case in the brain dead shooters that started the $2.1 million Dump Fire.

Exploding targets, an increasing wildfire problem

Star Exploding Targets, flames
A screen grab from a video endorsed by Cabela’s demonstrating a Star Exploding Target. We added the arrow and the “Flames” text to point out that flames are visible following the explosion.

Originally published October 11, 2012, updated February 6, 2013

Targets that are designed to explode when shot with a rifle have become more popular in recent years, emerging as an increasing threat to our wildlands. The problem is, they sometimes start fires in spite of claims by the manufacturers saying they are safe.

The military has been using them for at least 20 years when training marksmen to hit targets hundreds of yards away, since it can be difficult to see if a target was hit at that distance. When struck with the bullet from a rifle, the explosion and smoke are easily seen and indicate that the shooter hit the target

They are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed at the site by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport. The manufacturers claim that the only way they can be detonated is by striking them with a high-velocity bullet fired from a high-powered center-fire rifle. At least one company has recently started offering targets that will explode when hit with a much less powerful .22 caliber rim-fire rifle.

While the manufacturers claim they can’t start a fire, the screen grab (above) from a video shows flames in the grass just after a target advertised by Cabela’s and manufactured by Star Exploding Targets, explodes. The video is below, however we expect that eventually Cabela’s and Star will remove it from YouTube. The flames are visible three seconds into the video at the bottom left.

In a quick search, we found numerous reports of wildfires having been caused by exploding targets in a 5-month period. The dates below indicate when the information was published.

  • June 17, 2012, Colorado. The Springer Fire in Park County on the Pike National Forest burned 1,045 acres. It was caused by exploding targets.
  • June 13, 2012, Idaho. Four wildfires were caused by shooters using exploding targets up to that date in 2012.
  • June 15, 2012, Washington. A small fire near the mouth of the Grande Ronde River was apparently started by someone shooting at exploding targets.
  • June 16, 2012, Utah. The 300-acre Little Cove fire was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • June 29, 2012, Utah. A fire investigator said eight wildfires in the previous three weeks were caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • July 2, 2012, Nevada. A five-acre fire in Elko was caused by shooters using exploding targets.
  • August 19, 2012, Oregon. Five shooters were cited for starting a 35-acre fire using Tannerite exploding targets.
  • September 6, 2012, Washington. The Goat Fire burned 7,378 acres 3 miles southwest of Pateros, WA. It was started by exploding targets. Forest Service officials previously said two smaller fires — a 120-acre blaze in Mud Creek Entiat and one on Deadman Hill near Cashmere — may also have been ignited by exploding targets.
  • October 7, 2012, Pennsylvania. Two state Game Commission workers suffered injuries including burns, temporary blindness and hearing damage when an illegal exploding target blew up while the men attempted to put out a fire at a gun range in Pike County.
  • October 11, 2012, California. A 364-acre fire was started by shooters using exploding targets. A news report (see video below) shows two pounds of the explosive being used to blow up a car.
  • October 19, 2012, Utah. Two men have been charged with starting the Dump fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah that burned more than 5,500 acres and cost $2.1 million to put out. About 2,500 people were forced to evacuate. Investigators say the men were shooting June 21 when they hit an explosive target that started the fire in vegetation.
  • October 23, 2012, Nebraska. Three men have been charged with starting a fire by using exploding targets in Nebraska, and starting the Spotted Tail fire that burned 83 acres south of Chadron October 23.

This is a total of 24 fires that were either confirmed or suspected to be caused by exploding targets since the first of June, 2012. And these are just the ones that we were able to find using Google.

In most areas in the western United States exploding targets are illegal to use if there is a law or temporary ban on open fires.

One of the primary manufacturers of the targets is Tannerite. The company has a patent on the devices and has said the fires are caused by other companies infringing on their patent and adding an additional incendiary component in order to produce a more spectacular explosion.

At an online forum for firearms enthusiasts, The Firing Line, some of the posters decry the lack of wisdom of target shooters who start fires with exploding targets. A person using the moniker “g.willikers” wrote:

It seems that we gun owners have two enemies. Those who would deprive us of our gun rights. And those who throw those rights away.

Others on the forum suggested some alternative targets that can produce an impressive display when hit with a bullet, such as:

  • A milk jug filled with water
  • Potatoes
  • Pop can filled with water
  • Fresh cow pie

UPDATE October 12, 2012:

Ken told us about this news report that appeared on television in southern California October 11, 2012, explaining and demonstrating the hazards of these explosive targets. They use two pounds of the explosive to blow up a car, and Chief John Hawkins of CAL FIRE provides his point of view on the problem.