Wildfires: No smoking gun
JOE PYRAH - Daily Herald
Utah County commissioners are not sure exactly how flying bullets cause fires. But on Tuesday they renewed a ban on the use of firearms in unincorporated areas anyway, saying that bullets appear to be to blame for a number of blazes.
In July, commissioners decided that seven fires this year were caused by bullet ricochets, and they imposed a ban. On Tuesday they renewed that ban through August.
"We've spent over a million bucks already and we don't have any more to spend," said Commissioner Gary Anderson about firefighting costs that supposedly could be traced to shooters. At the same time, he's disappointed that he hasn't been able to take family members shooting in the Lake Mountain area on the west side of Utah Lake because of the ban.
Nobody offered any scientific evidence that Joe Gun Owner's 25-cent bullet could spark a million-dollar grass fire. But the rule was imposed anyway.
During debate Tuesday, Philip Blake of Pleasant Grove, a lifelong gun enthusiast, stood up to say that he was a Navy veteran who had never seen a fire started by gunshots, despite participating in a numerous live-fire exercises. "I've been a shooter for 50 years and shot in a lot of places, and I've never seen anything like they describe," he told the Herald.
Gun industry experts say that typical shooters firing typical lead bullets could never start a fire -- say by a ricochet off a rock.
"If the metal were hard enough to create a spark, it would carve out the rifling of a barrel," said Rick Patterson, managing director of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute. "There's no scientific evidence to support that it comes from the shooting."
Government officials don't disagree about the scarcity of science. But they claim to have anecdotal evidence -- that is, shooters at a fire scene who blame a ricochet. They also blame shooters by process of elimination: if no other evidence shows up indicating another cause, they assume a fire was caused by shooters.
"We're pretty thorough about how we investigate all the possibilities out there. I have to go scrounge around in the dirt and make sure there's nothing else out there," said Teresa Rigby, wildland fire investigator for the Bureau of Land Management who says she is a recreational shooter.
Patterson questions that methodology, and Rigby's conclusions. People who start fires have many reasons to use a ricochet as an excuse, he said, including a fear of being prosecuted if the fire was caused by carelessness.
For a cause to be assigned to guns with any certainty, one would have to evaluate a number of factors, experts say:
What kind of ammunition was used? A military tracer bullet, for example, is designed with a flammable chemical in its tail which burns to make the bullet trajectory visible -- and could start a fire. Armor-piercing rounds have a steel core. Steel is a ferrous metal that is hard enough to make a spark. But both types of bullets are rare in recreational shooting because they are not commercially available, or they're regulated. Most bullets are made of lead, or lead with a thin copper jacket. But experts say that these metals are too soft to create sparks.
What did a shooter actually hit? Rocks mostly likely won't spark, but authorities cite instances of people shooting old TVs, cars and propane tanks. That brings an element of the unknown into what will start a fire, they say. But if a spark was generated from a metallic target, there would be evidence at the site of a fire's origin.
Heat. Patterson said that typical ammunition doesn't get hot enough to start a fire. On the other hand, Rigby says that the cheatgrass that grows in remote areas has an ignition temperature of 400 degrees and that it really wouldn't take much to set it off. But the danger may depend on exactly what ammunition is being used. An article published in the June 2002 issue of R&D magazine, for example, found that a 5.56 mm NATO round fired from an AR-15 carbine traveling at 3,051 feet per second exits the barrel with a temperature of about 512 degrees Fahrenheit. (The article can be found at http://hotbullet.notlong.com) The author, Austin Richards, is senior applications engineer at Indigo Systems Corp., a maker of high-tech infrared cameras. He did note that bullets cool in flight, raising the question of whether it would still be hot enough to start a fire when it hit the ground. Most sport firearms use ammunition with far more modest performance characteristics and generate much less heat.
Type of gun and propellant. A rapid "burn" occurs in the chamber and barrel of any firearm. And muzzle flash can be visible as a bullet exits a barrel propelled by high-pressure burning gas. But modern smokeless powders are designed to be consumed rapidly in the gun; they don't burn in the open. Old-fashioned black powder, on the other hand, can spew out burning particles. But in either case, if gunpowder or muzzle flash started a fire it would start adjacent to the shooter, not a distance away.
Rigby said Tuesday that she is trying to get together enough resources to study the issue and hoped that perhaps one of the state's universities could take aim at the problem. Until then, or at least until Sept. 7, don't plan on squeezing off a few rounds in unincorporated Utah County. Fireworks and open fires are also banned until then.
The commission is trying to compensate shooters by opening up the county's shooting range at Thistle at no charge on Friday afternoons and all day on Saturdays.
Rest assured no one is violating your Second Amendment rights, says Rigby and Utah County Commissioner Steve White. It's not the county's intention to restrict anyone's gun rights. It's just that people can't discharge them where there's a fire danger -- whether shooters actually cause fires or not.
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August 8, 2007, 01:32 PM
Flimsy excuses for shooting ban
Utah County Commissioners have extended a summer shooting ban in all open areas of the county.
Why? Because they believe -- without any supporting scientific data -- that shooting guns causes wildfires.
In a front page article today, reporter Joe Pyrah explores the issue in detail. What he found tends to place the commission's decision more in the realm of religion. It certainly wasn't based on science.
Bullets, for the most part, are incapable of starting a fire. Lead and copper -- the material of virtually all bullets in commercial ammunition -- are soft metals that do not create sparks when they strike something. They do not exit a gun barrel red hot. They do not somehow become incendiary when they ricochet off something.
County commissioners can be forgiven to some extent because they are following the lead of the federal Bureau of Land Management, whose fire investigator has no physical evidence either but is apparently convincing when she asserts that bullets start fires.
Unfortunately, her assertion is a cry of panic, not reason.
There is a murmur going around official circles that seven fires were started this year by shooters, and the county has spent a million dollars to fight them. But when your really start to dig into the reasons for reaching this conclusion about shooters, you'll come up empty.
The BLM investigator, Teresa Rigby, has said that some shooters told her that a fire was started by a ricochet. But how often does this happen? Who are the shooters? What firearms were they shooting? What evidence do we have that they were telling the truth and weren't really covering up after dropping a cigarette into some grass?
Good questions. And we'd like answers.
We are troubled also by indications that shooters will be blamed for starting a fire for no reason except that another cause is not readily apparent. If true, this approach to assigning blame is clearly unfair to a group of citizens legitimately using the public lands.
Fires started by bullets are theoretically possible in only a couple of narrow circumstances -- usually involving illegal or military ammunition.
Tracer bullets, for example, have a chemical embedded in their base that burns through the bullet's entire flight trajectory. These bullets are, in fact, on fire and clearly can start a bigger one. A Boise police officer started a major fire in 1996, when a tracer bullet escaped the developed range at which he was shooting.
One other type of bullet could be a problem in theory: armor-piercing bullets, which have a steel core. Steel, being a ferrous metal, can cause sparks.
We have no problem with a ban on such bullets. But we do have a problem with a blanket ban on all shooting in open areas where it is normally allowed because of an irrational fear that all bullets can cause fires.
In researching today's front-page article, we did run across an interesting tidbit relating to a bullet's potential heat. Some measurements were made of a bullet in flight using high-tech infrared cameras. The bullet's temperature upon leaving the barrel of the gun was found to be 512 degrees Fahrenheit -- hotter than what BLM's Rigby claims is the minimum temperature (400 degrees) that can ignite cheatgrass.
But the test bullet was a 5.56 mm NATO round fired from an AR-15 carbine traveling at 3,051 feet per second. This is important because friction of the bullet in the barrel is what generates heat. The greater the velocity and length of barrel, the greater the heat.
The hot bullet in the test was substantially beyond what most sporting calibers would generate, and should not be used as a basis for setting public policy. It's not unusual, say, for a .45 ACP pistol to discharge a bullet at under 1,000 feet per second. It's a short barrel, and it simply doesn't get very warm. Most rifle rounds clock at under 2,500 feet per second.
Moreover, bullets cool off as they fly through the air. So it's far from certain that even the 5.56 mm round mentioned above would actually start a fire hundreds of yards distant.
Black powder weapons deserve some scrutiny, perhaps, because the old-fashioned propellant does produce burning particles that can fall on the ground. By contrast, however, the modern smokeless powder used in most commercial ammunition is virtually inert outdoors. It requires the high pressure of a gun's chamber to work. It doesn't burn in the open air. So it's tough to make a rational case for banning its use.
The Utah County Commission needs to substitute some science for emotion. Shooters clearly do not pose a general threat to the public lands. In fact, we are not convinced that any fire this year was started by shooters. The evidence is flimsy to nonexistent.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A5.
August 8, 2007, 08:10 PM
The Inmates are running the asylum!
Passing rules with out any real research, is getting way out of hand!
Go to your next County Commish. meeting and educate them of the true facts, might help! :banghead:
August 8, 2007, 08:33 PM
How to Lie with Statistics has become How to Lie Without Any Statistics. :barf:
I know I'm the sharpest tool in the shed, so let me test their lo(w-life-)gic: If there were two cows, in the area, droppin' "patties" before the shooters arrived, and these two cows remained there dropping "patties" after the shooters left, then the cow "patties" started the fire?! :scrutiny:
And even if they didn't, they are assumed to have done so, and therefore, there won't be anymore droppin' "patties" there when it's hot out.
And so, any shootists who just want to "shoot-the-"patties" (so to speak), cannot, even if they don't bring any guns. :evil:
August 10, 2007, 02:38 PM
Some more info:
County sheriff to attempt to start blaze with gun
JOE PYRAH - Daily Herald
What, exactly, are shooters doing that starts fires in unincorporated Utah County?
The question, posed earlier this week by the Daily Herald, has sparked the interest of Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy.
The County Commission, at the urging of fire officials, renewed a monthlong ban on shooting, fireworks and open fires in unincorporated areas on Tuesday, citing fire danger. But questions asked by the Daily Herald only lead to more questions about whether a gun and/or its bullets could have started the seven blazes that commissioners say have cost the county more than a million dollars to fight this year.
Ammunition experts say that typical bullets used by recreational shooters don't spark when they bounce off rocks. It's also highly unlikely that the lead itself would be hot enough to land in dry cheat grass and spark a fire.
So Tracy plans to visit the Thistle gun range early next week to conduct some experiments. One idea is that it's not the bullet strike causing the blaze but instead the chain reaction when a bullet strikes a rock or object that then collides with another object, causing a spark.
Imagine holding two objects that will create a spark, then bringing them together, creating that spark. The speed of the collision would likely be around 60 mph, or, tossed into the feet-per-second calculator, 88 fps.
A slow velocity bullet, say from a .45-caliber pistol, can travel at 1,000 fps or more, Tracy said. Something from a high-power rifle can get up to 4,000 fps. That kind of speed forcing two spark-producing objects together may well start a fire, he said, even with large objects.
"Speed can overcome a lot of that," he said. "It can be enough to make a spark that will endure long enough."
The experiment will likely involve placing various materials in a box with plenty of cheat grass. The grass, which blankets everything, grows faster than county home prices and is drier than usual because of drought conditions.
Tracy says testers will fire bullets into the boxes to see what happens. They'll also heat up bullets and drop them on cheat grass to see if it will ignite.
Teresa Rigby, wildland fire investigator for the Bureau of Land Management, said the grass could ignite at as low as 400 degrees. Previous studies show that bullets can leave a barrel at higher temperatures than that, but they also cool during flight.
Tracy has the background to pull off the experiments. A pyrophoric materials expert, he has been on a bomb squad for 20 years and was a shooting instructor for 17 years.
In 31 years at shooting ranges, he said there have been plenty of times that fires were started. But usually those blazes started because of armor piercing rounds that have a tungsten-carbide core, or tracer ammunition, which is designed with a flammable chemical in its tail which burns to make the bullet trajectory visible.
He said in those three decades, only twice has a fire been started using "conventional" ammunition.
How can that number be so low when officials cite 7 fires started this year by shooters?
The sandy backdrop at a firing range is a lot different than Lake Mountain, which is home to old cars and abandoned propane tanks, microwaves and TVs. There's also a lot more cheat grass.
Commissioner Steve White said Thursday that the ban is in place at the request of county fire officials. If Tracy were to come back and suggest lifting the ban, he would. He also pointed out that since the shooting ban was enacted, there hasn't been a major fire the county.
Want to shoot but not risk a citation?
The county has opened up the shooting range in Thistle to the public free of charge every Friday afternoon and all day Saturday until Sept. 7.
Sheriff Jim Tracy said no citations have been issued to shooters since the ban was enacted, with the county instead opting for an education campaign.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.
August 10, 2007, 04:11 PM
I have a better explanation. Guys are tossing butts out the window as they drive away from shooting.
It really is a bit silly, living in Ogden, driving to Springville to shoot with my dad, and now we can't go out past the lake to shoot either. Utah has WAY too much open space for it to be so hard to find a place to shoot.
August 10, 2007, 04:26 PM
Second smoke butts, I caught some fool dumping their ashtray in my front yard, and BTW if I didn't catch that, it looks like this:
That was set on purpose, but it gives you an idea...
August 10, 2007, 07:21 PM
While I disagree with the county commission on banning shooting, it is very possible to start a fire shooting under the right circumstances.
Here in Kansas we have a lot of chert and flint hills. A steel jacketed bullet (like most military FMJ is) will create LOTS of sparks. I've done it myself with a Yugo SKS and some Russian FMJ.
I've also seen a fire on a range from tracers being used for an NRA sporting rifle match. The guy thought he was using Talon .30/06 FMJ but the bullets loaded were actually tracer loaded from the factory. There were no traces of paint on the tip so it's assumed they were loaded by mistake at the factory.
With this said, some of the largest grassfires I've seen around here were either deliberately set, careless smoking or broken glass refraction.
August 10, 2007, 09:38 PM
A steel jacketed bullet (like most military FMJ is)
Steel cased perhaps in Mother Russia, but Steel jacketed?
I was shooting today and missed my beer can target and split a rock in half. No spark, no fire. This was in a Nat. Forest on a field with plenty of high grass.
August 10, 2007, 10:03 PM
I do nearly all my shooting in forests, never have seen a spark from a normal bullet; FMJ, SP, hollow point, nothing I've ever fired has created a spark. Blackpowder guns do throw burning bits of powder and such out and maybe one could start a fire, but I've never seen a fire started by one here, even when it's dry. VT is a far cry from Utah but still, I think my observations are valid enough.
If any shooter caused a fire it was likely with incendiary ammo. I could see restricting firing that when it's that dry, national forests here don't allow it even, but I couldn't see stopping all shooting...
But I think it more likely a careless smoker, someone building a campfire or cooking did it, or maybe even lightning strikes or the like, fires do naturally happen in various ways.
August 10, 2007, 10:19 PM
i think if you run a search this territory has been covered before with results that may surprise you. i've started a fire with a bush hog blade hitting rocks on several occaisions.
If it was started by gunfire more than likely the shooter was using tracer ammo or shooting at exploding targets.
August 10, 2007, 11:09 PM
...that's one of the craziest things I've ever heard...
How about the catalytic converter from one of the anectdotal reporters' cars...How about lightning...How about ohhh **** I better come up with a good story because they'll fry me if I tell them I started that fire myself or crap I hate all these guns in my playground maybe if I report seeing a ricochet causing a spark...sheesh...
August 10, 2007, 11:12 PM
see 444 post in the link above vis a vis the difference between folks who have seen it happen versus those who know it can't because they haven't seen it. the irony is great. brings to mind the line about contempt prior to investigation
August 11, 2007, 02:24 AM
From what I understand, there is a lot of steel core 7.62x54R military surplus ammo out there on the market. I could see that causing a nice spark. I'm in Utah County and now that I think about it, one of those fires was up on the hill just downrange from the Provo gun range. There may be something to it.
August 11, 2007, 02:33 AM
If you're talking about the fire that started right above the Riverwoods shopping center and headed up towards the gun club around the end of June, that was alledgedly started by a lawnmower hitting a rock.
August 11, 2007, 03:14 AM
We shot Norinco ammo at a T post, T posts are made from recycle rails, Norinco ammo had steel in it, we did start some wheat on fire, not good around here, we managed to douse it with water we had in milk jugs we were shooting. Maybe just a fluke that it happened ??
August 14, 2007, 06:27 PM
Yeah, that's the fire I was thinking of. Hadn't heard anything about how it started. Thanks.
August 14, 2007, 07:37 PM
Maybe they know its true because they saw it on tv or a movie? I have seen sparks fly from trees when hit by a bullet on tv.
August 14, 2007, 08:33 PM
They ban shooting here in the mountains during summer time because of fires. I'm in southern california. It sucks but lots of ammo is steel core or steel jacketed like surplus and most 7.62x39. About 10 years ago a shooter started a big fire that burned some houses. If that happens again the government is likely to place a permanent ban in place so I don't mind the outdoor shooting areas being closed during fire season. I personally have seen fires start at ranges from
August 15, 2007, 12:04 PM
I've a strong hunch that at least 90% of these "fires started by bullets" stories are actually fires started by smokers or fires started because somebody was playing with fireworks.
Sherriff Tracy tried starting a fire shooting all sorts of .223, .308, and 7.62x39 rounds into boxes full of cheatgrass and rocks, and couldn't start a fire. He poured molten lead and couldn't start a fire. He heated a copper bullet to 500 degrees and couldn't start a fire with it.
If the sherriff couldn't start a fire when trying to do so, it is difficult to believe that it happens often at all in random circumstances.
August 15, 2007, 12:28 PM
I've been at the range after dark and seen SERIOUS sparks thrown up by rifle rounds fired into the sand/dirt (nothing metallic). Looked like fireworks going off, you could see exactly where the rounds were hitting and ricocheting. I'd believe it's possible judging by that experience. Never seen a fire start from it though...not enough fuel on the range for anything to catch.
August 15, 2007, 01:08 PM
I would say it is far more likely that still-burning bits of powder flying out the muzzle ignited some dry grass, etc. This is more common with shorter barrel firearms (such as handguns) and is more common in some ammo brands than in others. Some ammo I have shot from a pistol throws a shower of glowing bits out behind the bullet. It is certainly possible that a bit could stick to the back of a bullet. Unlikely, but possible.
August 15, 2007, 03:29 PM
Not completely related, but back in my military days, I discovered that a smoke grenade thrown in the middle of fall (leaves on the ground) during a drought has a good chance of making a fire.
Don't ask me how I know this...:D:p
August 15, 2007, 04:49 PM
Somebody call Mythbusters, have them do a show on the possibility of starting grass/brush fires w/different types of ammo.
September 12, 2007, 05:49 PM
For what it's worth, the 9/12/07 edition of the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, reported the following:
"A Salem man is accused of shooting tracer-type rounds from a high-powered rifle that started a Polk County wildfire, a blaze that burned 425 acres of private and public land.
"Eric Larkins, 40, of Salem was arrested about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday after he turned himself in at patrol headquarters, Polk County sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jeff Van Laanen said.
"The fire, known as the 1500 Road Fire, was reported about noon Saturday near Bald Mountain, five miles southwest of Falls City. About 425 acres of land protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry have burned.
"Larkin faces criminal charges of second-degree mischief and reckless burning, a class A misdemeanor.
"Deputy Brian Dunkin said that Larkins was target shooting in a rural area close to where the fire began Saturday. ... Larkins was with three to five other friends, shooting a military-style .50 caliber sniper rifle, when three shots were fired into a tree stump. The bullets were described as armor-piercing, incendiary, tracer-type rounds.
"When the group saw smoke from the stump, they tried to extinguish the fire, but it grew out of control. They fled and called 911 but did not claim responsibility."
There's more. You can check it out at:
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