SPOKANE, Wash. - Campfires, fireworks and even lit cigarettes can spark wildfires. In the tinder-dry West, there is growing concern about the threat from guns.
This year, officials believe target shooting or other firearms use sparked at least 21 wildfires in Utah and nearly a dozen in Idaho. Shooting is also believed to have caused fires in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.
Those concerns come as states grapple with ways to cut the risk of new fires ahead of the Fourth of July holiday when many people fire their guns to celebrate the nation's independence.
Officials have been asking the public to scale back shooting as legions of firefighters contend with one of the busiest and most destructive wildfire seasons to ever hit the West.
In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert took the unusual step of authorizing the top state forest official to impose gun restrictions on public lands after a gunfire-sparked fire. The official is expected to do so within days.
Herbert said his decision doesn't limit gun rights, but is a common-sense response to dry conditions.
Guns-rights advocates, meanwhile, were skeptical that firearms use can cause so many wildfires.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Sports Shooting Council, said that perhaps 5 percent of the wildfires in the state have been caused by target shooters this year. "I don't know how much of a problem it really is," he said.
Utah officials believe steel-jacketed bullets are the most likely culprits, given one shot that hits a rock and throws off sparks can ignite surrounding vegetation and quickly spread. Popular exploding targets are also blamed for causing wildfires.
The bullets were recently banned on state and federal lands in Utah. Officials are telling sportsmen to use lead bullets that don't give off sparks when they hit rocks.
Many in the West are avid Second Amendment proponents, so most state lawmakers are hesitant to enact any restrictions for fear of a backlash.
"We're not trying to pull away anyone's right to bear arms. I want to emphasize that," said Louinda Downs, a county commissioner in fire-prone Davis County, Utah. "We're just saying target practice in winter. Target practice on the gun range.
"When your pleasure hobby is infringing or threatening someone else's right to have property or life, shouldn't we be able to somehow have some authority so we can restrict that?" she asked.
For weeks, state officials have said they were powerless to ban gun use because of Second Amendment rights, but legislative leaders say they found an obscure state law that empowers the state forester to act in an emergency.
Among the recent fires, target shooters on June 21 ignited a blaze about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City that grew to about nine square miles and forced the evacuation of about 2,300 before it was contained.
Statistics on wildfires caused by firearms are incomplete because the federal government does not list "shooting" as a cause on its fire reports.
On land managed by the U.S. Forest Service only, the center found 17 such wildfires in 2010, 28 last year and 13 so far this year.
This year, the Bureau of Land Management said 11 of 31 wildfires it has battled in Idaho have been sparked by shooting activities.
In New Mexico, state forestry officials said a landowner was target shooting when one of his bullets hit a rock and sparked a small blaze.
Officials at Arizona's Tonto National Forest had seven wildfires caused by firearms in 2010, 10 in 2011 and at least five so far this year. The potential for fire is so great that shooting for several years has been prohibited on BLM property in the Phoenix area.
In one case in the state, prosecutors said five friends at a campout and bachelor party set off an 18,000-acre fire on May 12 when one of them loaded an incendiary shell, which burns rapidly and causes fires, into a shotgun and pulled the trigger.
• Air Force tanker planes returned to the flight line for firefighting missions on Tuesday after a deadly weekend crash, bringing much-needed reinforcements to a strained fleet battling some of the worst wildfires in decades.
The return of five C-130s means wildfire managers now have 19 heavy tankers to battle the huge fires that have burned hundreds of square miles and displaced thousands of people across the West.
The Air Force had sidelined its seven remaining firefighting C-130s to review safety procedures after a C-130 from the North Carolina National Guard crashed Sunday, killing four crew members and injuring the other two. The cause is under investigation.
Five of the remaining C-130s were ready to fly firefighting sorties from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs on Tuesday. A sixth was expected to be available today. None had been sent on any missions by Tuesday afternoon.
• One wildfire in Montana has charred more than 290 square miles and burned 16 homes. The fire was 55 percent contained.
The most active part of the fire was burning thick, largely inaccessible timber on the Custer National Forest. That has led firefighters to steer clear of the dangerous forward edge of the blaze, fire information officer Kathy Bushnell said.
• In Wyoming, erratic winds have spread a wildfire across 128 square miles in a sparsely populated area since it started June 27. It was only 10 percent contained.
On StarNet: For the latest news on Arizona wildfires go to azstarnet.com/wildfire
Did You Know?
Early in June Coronado National Forest officials prohibited discharging a firearm, air rifle or gas gun except during a lawful hunt as one of several restrictions put into place to try to reduce wildfires.
Source: Star archives
"We're not trying to pull away anyone's right to bear arms. I want to emphasize that. We're just saying target practice in winter. Target practice on the gun range."
Louinda Downs, a county commissioner in Utah