An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of acres burned in the Goat Fire. The error has been corrected in this version.
WENATCHEE — While dozens of wildfires were burning out of control in North Central Washington late last summer, at least two people decided it would be a good time to do some target shooting in the dry, grassy hills above Alta Lake.
They set up an exploding target — a type of device blamed for starting at least two dozen fires across the west last summer — and fired at it, causing a loud boom, and a huge smoke-like cloud. The outing also resulted in the Goat Fire, which would burn 7,378 acres from Sept. 15 until Nov. 9
One firefighter broke an ankle fighting the fire, a state park was closed, dozens of people who live around Alta Lake were warned to evacuate, and emergency and commercial communications towers were threatened.
U.S. Forest Service officials have not said whether their investigators believe that the fire was caused by the target or a bullet striking something else.
Those familiar with exploding targets disagree about whether they can start fires. Some contend that they’re so dangerous, they should be banned. But this much is certain: as exploding targets become more popular they are more often linked to wildfires.
Fire officials last summer said that two other fires in North Central Washington — a 120-acre blaze up Mud Creek near Entiat, and a quarter-acre fire on Deadman Hill near Cashmere — were started by people shooting at exploding targets.
Dave Gimlin, president of the Wenatchee Sportsmen’s Association, said he’s convinced some exploding targets can ignite fires. He said a friend who was shooting on a shooting range near Soap Lake a couple years ago is certain that the targets he used ignited a fire there. “By the time the fire department got there, he had a five-acre fire,” Gimlin said.
“I know Tannerite is not supposed to ignite a flame, but those little, square exploding targets, those have been known to cause fires.”
Kelsey Hilderbrand, owner of High Mountain Hunting Supply in Wenatchee, said he’s only familiar with Tannerite’s exploding targets. which he sells at his store for between $4.95 and $9 apiece, depending on the size. “We sell a lot of them. They’re very popular, and they’re a lot of fun,” he said. Hilderbrand said he’s used them a lot, using a haystack as a backdrop, and the targets have never started a fire.
“They are a gaseous explosion,” he said, “They are not a heat-related explosion, so there’s no way to have an ignition-based system.”
“There’s no question they start fires,” said Bill Gabbert, a former wildland firefighter and fire investigator in Southern California who now produces the online magazine, Wildfire Today.
Gabbert said he found 23 wildfires ignited by exploding target shooters last summer just by searching the Internet. He said he believes they are a growing danger because more and more people are starting to use them.
“It’s just become so popular. If you search on YouTube, you’ll see dozens or hundreds of videos,” he said.
Exploding targets are a mixture of an oxidizer — usually ammonium nitrate — and a fuel, such as aluminum.
According to a May 2012 newsletter from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency does not regulate the sale and distribution of these powder chemicals, even when they’re sold as kits designed to become explosives.
Once mixed, someone must have a federal explosives permit to transport them.
Sportsmen generally mix them onsite before using them as targets.
The chemicals are unlawful to possess in some states. Sgt. Bob Epps, bomb squad commander for the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff’s hazardous device team, said his officers are charging businesses and sportsmen for possession of these chemicals, even unmixed.
Retail stores in his county have been told they have 30 days to return their inventory of binary explosives, or they can be charged with a felony under California law that bans the devices.
“We understand that this has not been tightly regulated,” he said, adding, “Most of the vendors have all been very, very cooperative.”
Epps said he believes the explosives could cause serious injury, although he hasn’t had any incidents in his jurisdiction.
He said in one case, firefighters responding to a blaze ignited by exploding targets were lucky that they weren’t injured before discovering the target shooter had set up some 30 cans of exploding targets on the side of a mountain.
“They were walking around in essentially a mine field,” he said.
Epps said his concern is that the targets could be used by terrorists.
He said the chemicals, once mixed, have the same power, known as detonation velocity, as ammonium nitrate and fuel oil — the explosive used in the Oklahoma City bombing. However, he added, they are more sensitive, since they can be exploded from far awayby the friction of a single bullet.
But even if some people think they are fun, Gabbert says exploding targets are nothing to play around with. His website links to a newscast in which a car is demolished by detonating exploding targets.
“I think we need to figure out a way to ban the use of exploding targets,” he said, adding, “I’m convinced they are too dangerous to use.”
John Maclean — author of several books on fatal wildfires including one on the 2001 Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop — said he’s concerned about the danger that exploding targets pose to firefighters.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, two game commissioners were investigating a fire caused by exploding targets when an unexploded target suddenly exploded.
They checked into a local hospital with temporary blindness and hearing loss, and went back to work the next day. The target shooters were never located.
In Riverside, Calif., firefighters responding to a blaze ignited by people shooting at exploding targets discovered there were multiple targets that had not yet exploded. They called in a hazardous devices team to remove them.
“It’s a growing problem, and it’s going to get worse,” Maclean predicted.
Rather than pushing for a ban — which he thinks would get mired down in Second Amendment rights — he’d like to see people voluntarily refrain from using them, “and avoid all the issues that go along with felony charges.”
In Washington, exploding targets are already illegal to use on state land, said Larry Raedel, chief of law enforcement for the state Department of Natural Resources.
“We don’t allow any explosive or incendiary devices,” he said, including Tannerite, an exploding target which, its manufacturers claim, does not ignite fires.
The question isn’t so simple on federal lands, said Tom Knappenberger, regional spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
“We don’t have anything that specifically addresses explosive ammunition,” he said, although the agency has lots of rules about negligence. The issue of whether exploding targets are dangerous or likely to cause fires is relatively new, he said, adding, “This is going to be a continuing issue, nationwide.”
Local sportsmen say the real issue should focus on whether people are acting recklessly — whether it’s shooting at targets, using a vehicle without a spark arrester, or failing to extinguish a campfire.
Like other local wildfires in which people were charged and ordered to pay suppression costs after leaving a campfire or riding a motorcycle through dry grass, the Forest Service officials says criminal charges could be filed and suppression costs assessed against the target shooters who ignited the Goat Fire.
That investigation is ongoing, and no details about possible suspects or what they did has been released.
The agency has declined to say whether the exploding targets themselves produced the spark that ignited the fire.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that it was likely a ricocheting bullet — not an exploding target — that ignited another wildfire southeast of Salt Lake City last summer. The two people who were charged with causing the fire pleaded guilty to using exploding targets, and were fined $10,000.
Whether exploding targets cause fires or not, both Hilderbrand and Gimlin said the issue rests with the individual responsibility of the target shooter.
“It’s just a matter of making a bad choice of where you shoot it. If there’s not a bunch of brush and it’s not dry, they’re perfectly safe,” said Gimlin.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512