SPOKANE, Wash. – In the tinder-dry West, where campfires, fireworks and even lit cigarettes are banned across public lands, another fire-starting culprit remains free of most restrictions: 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.
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 doesnt limit gun rights but is rather a common-sense response to dry conditions.
Officials believe steel-jacketed bullets are the most likely culprits; 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.
Were not trying to pull away anyones right to bear arms. I want to emphasize that, said Louinda Downs, a county commissioner in fire-prone Davis County, Utah. Were just saying: target-practice in winter. Target-practice on the gun range.
When your pleasure hobby is infringing or threatening someone elses right to have property or life, shouldnt 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.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Sports Shooting Council, said his group will conduct tests to determine whether the steel-jacketed bullet theory is true. If there are limits, we want to make sure it is not knee-jerk legislation to ban guns or ammunition, he said. If it turns out the problem is with a few types of rounds, we will not be an apologist for them.