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.

Nevada fires update

The Elko Daily Free Press reported that the 16,000-acre Willow Fire is now the main priority for the BLM’s Elko district. It’s burning north of Battle Mountain; resources on the fire include one of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s DC-10 aircraft.
Willow Fire 08/07/12Most of the fires in Nevada have not been updated on Inciweb since the middle of July, except for the Lake Fire Complex, which comprises the 162-acre Lake Fire and the 42-acre Murphy Fire on the Bridgeport District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Those fires are just south of Wellington, Nevada, and north of Bridgeport, California. The fires started early Sunday afternoon; both are at about 80 percent containment.
Willow Fire on 08/07/12The Elko Daily Free Press reported on Monday that 11 major fires were burning in north and central Nevada. A 7,000-acre fire southeast of Alamo was at zero containment, another north of Battle Mountain was at 5,000 acres, and a 3,000-acre fire near there was threatening structures. East of Denio, another fire had reached 3,000 acres.

According to the newspaper report, smaller fires were active 31 miles northwest of Winnemucca, 20 miles northwest of Battle Mountain, 22 miles southeast of Winnemucca, 5 miles southeast of Winnemucca, 25 miles southwest of Winnemucca, 55 miles northwest of Winnemucca, and 65 miles northwest of Winnemucca.

The fires were started Sunday afternoon by lightning.

The 20-Mile Fire northwest of Montello likely won’t be aggressively fought from the ground because thunderstorms and heavy rain in steep terrain last month made entry to the fire area impossible. According to fire managers, mopup, rehab, and demob have been delayed by impassible roads. The fire is 98 percent contained at just over 13,000 acres.

Wildfire news, March 22, 2012

Doug Erskine passes away

Doug ErskineDoug Erskine, former National Park Service Director of Fire Management Operations at the National Interagency Fire Center passed away Wednesday night. He had been dealing with the effects of emphysema/COPD for the last eight years. In September the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center posted a 4-minute video featuring him speaking about an intercommunication skill and tactic that worked for him throughout his career. He leaves his wife Margaret, who said there will be a memorial service but not for at least a few weeks.

Civilian fatalities and injuries

Three stories about civilians being killed or burned in fires are in the news:

  • The initial reports were that James Alex Cefaloni, 64, died in a brush fire near Lake Hartwell in Townville, South Carolina. However the Anderson County Deputy Coroner said Thursday that Mr. Cefaloni died of a heart attack after a fire spread from the pile of leaves he was burning.
  • A medical examiner has determined that a woman found dead after the Washoe fire near Reno, Nevada on January 20, 2012 died of smoke inhalation. Both a son and daughter of June Hargis, 93, called her and frantically tried to get her to evacuate, but she did not think the fire was a threat and stayed in her home, which later burned. Wildfire Today covered this tragic story on January 22.
  • Dannie Withrow, 72, suffered burns over 20 percent of his body while trying to put out a fire that escaped while he was burning trash. He was taken off a ventilator Wednesday morning but is listed in critical condition.

Nebraska fire burns nearly 7,000 acres

And speaking of escaped fires, a prescribed fire on private land near Mullen, Nebraska (map) got out of control and burned 6,700 acres on Wednesday. KNOP-TV reports that 20 fire departments responded as well as a “crop sprayer”. The prescribed fire began at 10:30 a.m., it was reported to the fire department as escaped at noon, and was contained at 5:30 p.m.

Early fire season in plains and upper midwest

A story from the AP is being widely circulated. Here is an excerpt:

…The region’s early start to wildfire season was brought on by a “vicious cycle” of weather patterns, explained Beth Hermanson of the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division. Three years of excessive snow and rain fed grass growth before this winter’s relatively light snowpack, which left grass standing 4 or 5-feet tall in some areas dried out – creating perfect fuel for wildfires.

“This time of year that’s very unusual because normally we get that snow cover and it lays (the grass) down,” Hermanson said.

“There’s a lot of fuel to burn out there, which is a recipe for disaster as far as fires go,” added North Dakota Forest Service fire specialist Ryan Melin.

Melin said North Dakota averages about 500 grassfires a year, but he expects far more this season considering dozens have already been reported. He also noted that two consecutive springs of heavy rain and flooding dampened grassfires but also spurred excessive vegetation growth.

“This year, my gut feeling is we’re going to be quite a bit above that,” Melin said, adding that about 90 percent of such fires are sparked by humans. “We’ve had a ton of fires and multiple large-scale events of over 1,000 acres.”

Federal land management agencies advertise thousands of seasonal jobs

An article in the Washington Post covers the tens of thousands of seasonal jobs that the federal land management agencies are advertising, including 12,000 U.S. Forest Service positions.
Thanks go out to Dick

Followup on the Washoe fire: 1 fatality, 29 burned structures

Firefighters have contained the Washoe fire south of Reno, Nevada, thanks to the efforts of firefighters, diminishing winds, and eventually two inches of rain that fell in the area. More accurate surveys and mapping have shown that the final size is 3,177 acres and that 29 structures burned.

An elderly man admitted accidentally starting fire by tossing out fireplace ashes that were still hot. Officials said he contacted them on his own and that he was “remorseful”.

The person that died during the fire has been identified as June Hargis, 93, who was living the studio apartment of her daughter, Jeannie M. Watts. Ms. Watts told the Reno Gazette-Journal that she was getting rehab for a shoulder she injured in an automobile accident when someone told her about a fire that was burning near her house.

Meanwhile, Ms. Watts younger brother, Jim Blueberg, also heard about the fire and tried to drive to his mother’s apartment to help her evacuate, but was turned away at checkpoints. He called her and told her to leave, but she decided to stay. She walked out the front door and told her son that she smelled smoke but didn’t see any fire. What she didn’t know was that the fire was approaching from the back side of the apartment.

Ms. Watts and her husband rushed back home from the rehab center but were stopped at road blocks. Eventually, after explaining about her mother who was in the apartment, they were allowed through but had to detour around areas that were on fire. When they arrived at her house they saw the burned out studio apartment, the burned horse barn, and her home that was starting to burn. She asked a firefighter if her mother made it out of the apartment. He went over and looked and said she did not make it out.

The official cause of death of Ms. Hargis will not be determined until an autopsy is performed, but earlier officials said they believed it to be “smoke inhalation”.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family of Ms. Hargis.

Thousands evacuate from Washoe fire south of Reno

10:35 a.m. PT, January 20, 2012

The Western Great Basin Coordination Center reported at 9:30 a.m. that the Washoe fire has burned  approximately 4,000 acres and is 50% contained The Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center web site which was updated at 9:30 this morning says 3,766 acres have burned.. At least 26 homes have been destroyed, according to the WGBCC. Highway 395 remains closed due to guard rail and other damage. Washam’s Type 3 incident management team assumed command at 6:00 a.m. today. Approximately 2,000 people are still without power due to downed power lines.

This is the second major fire for the Reno area in the last two months. On November 18 the Caughlin fire burned 1,847 acres and caused the evacuation of 10,000 residents on the southwest side of the city. It was also mopped up by a snowfall a day or two after the primary spread of the fire. The Caughlin fire destroyed 15 structures and damaged 40 others.

Here is some very impressive video footage that shows how the very strong winds, gusting up to 82 mph, made the Washoe fire extremely difficult to control.

5:55 a.m. PT, January 20, 2012

The Washoe fire south of Reno, Nevada is 50 percent contained and the spread has been stopped, according to Reno Fire Batallion chief, Tim Spencer. Approximately 27 homes have burned but 800 homes were saved in the East Lake area. There has been one fatality but no information has been released about the circumstances or the identity of the person. An estimated 3,700 acres have burned.

Highway 395 is still closed. Some firefighting resources en route from California were turned around in Donner pass due to the weather and chain controls.

There are reports that 6,000 to 10,000 people were forced to evacuate. Some of those have been allowed to return, reducing the number to 2,000.

Below is an updated map posted by Washoe County. It shows the fire size at  7:20 p.m. January 19 to be 2,000 acres. A larger version of the map can be downloaded HERE (large 3.5 Mb .pdf file). The lake at the bottom of the map is Little Washoe Lake. The red highway running roughly north and south is US 395. RGJ.com produced an easier to read map that shows the evacuation areas.

Map showing the estimated perimeter of the Washoe fire, produced by Washoe County at 7:20 p.m. January 19.

RGJ.com has a gallery of photos of the fire. Many of them are excellent.

The National Weather Service predicts that the winds Friday morning will be southwest 10 mph. The wind will increase to 17-31 with gusts up to 49 in the late afternoon, but the chance of rain will increase throughout the afternoon, topping out at 99 percent by 4 p.m. PT. The rain should change to about 1 inch of snow early Saturday morning.

Because of the growing fire, Vice President Joe Biden was forced to cut short a speech he was making Thursday afternoon at a high school in Reno.

6:32 p.m. PT, January 19, 2011

At noon on Thursday a wildfire started north of Washoe Lake, between Reno and Lake Tahoe about 25 miles south of Reno. According to the Western Great Basin Coordination Center (WGBCC) at 5:54 p.m. PT, the fire had burned 3,000 acres, was zero percent contained, and “1,000 structures have been impacted”. They also report that Washam’s Type 3 Incident Management Team is being mobilized for the fire, named Washoe.
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