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Target Shooting: Harmless Hobby Or Trigger For Wildfire?

Noah Glick
A shooting bay overlooks various targets that make up the Washoe County Regional Shooting Facility near Pyramid Lake.

While heat and thunderstorms bring heightened potential for wildfires, the majority of wildfires are human-caused.

Target shooting in particular has been the cause of several blazes this year, including the Detweiler Fire that has destroyed more than 130 structures in Mariposa County, California.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick looks at this activity that’s been triggering debate and conflict in the community.

Bullets charge out of shotguns, pistols and rifles, as gunners take aim at targets staggered among the dirt hills north of Spanish Springs.

They’re at the Washoe County Regional Shooting Facility, located about 25 miles north of Sparks. It’s the only managed outdoor range in the county.

Bryan Harrower is the district park manager who oversees the facility.

“If you feel nervous about being out shooting around other people with their firearms, this gives you a very safe, regimented location to where people are going to be following certain rules and doing everything in a way that is very predictable,” he says.

Credit Noah Glick
The Washoe County Regional Shooting Facility is located about 25 miles north of Sparks on the Pyramid Highway. It's open four days a week, Friday through Monday, including holidays.

Harrower says the facility is open four days a week, but he’d like to offer extended hours.

“Right now, our biggest constraint for that is staffing levels,” he says. “Our budget is still fairly tight. We have not rebounded all the way from the economic downturn. So we have a limited staff available.”

He says it’s important to provide a place for the community to shoot, because this activity, when done improperly, can cause wildfires.

And not just from stray bullets.

“If you put a lot of rounds through the barrel of a rifle, that rifle is going to end up very, very warm,” Harrower warns. “You set that down in a pile of grass, you set that down in an area that has not been cleared, that’s another potential for sparking a fire.”

Bureau of Land Management Fire Investigator Ryan Elliott says target shooting is responsible for about 40 percent of human-caused fires in the region.

Elliott, who is a shooter himself, says people who want to practice on public lands should go to the areas that have already burned, where there are no more fuels and thus, essentially no fire risk.

“I think what we don’t want to have happen is, ‘Well, we’re causing all these fires and so we’re going to have closure of our public lands to this kind of activity.’ That’s the real negative that I don’t think anybody really wants to see,” he says.

“But if these fires keep happening, that’s something that might have to be taken, just from the standpoint of public safety and firefighter safety.”

Some public lands have already been closed this year. The Carson Ranger District, where Elliott works, has issued a temporary shooting restriction through September 30.

In Washoe County, shooting is not allowed in congested areas, that is, within 5,000 feet of any occupied dwelling. Bob Harmon is with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. He says that’s not the only concern.

“You can start a fire just as easily in a place where it’s legal to shoot as you can in a place where it’s not legal to shoot if you don’t take the proper precautions,” he says.

These include clearing land, shooting into dirt berms instead of rock, and carrying water, a fire extinguisher and a shovel.

There’s a maximum $1,000 fine and 6-month jail sentence for anyone caught shooting in illegal areas. But unless people are breaking laws, officers can’t punish them. They can only give information and hope they act with caution.

Sharon Oren is the owner of Maccabee Arms, a gun store in Reno. He says, in a broad sense, the issue really comes down to access.

“We keep on giving land to developers. What it does is it creates a bigger and bigger map of restricted areas, or what you call congested areas,” he says. “Nobody thinks about the shooting community. Now, if you’re going to push people to a limit where they have nowhere to go, what do you expect them to do?”

Credit Noah Glick
Sharon Oren (middle) chats with Reno Fire Department Fire Marshall Tray Palmer (left) and Reno City Councilmember Naomi Duerr (right) at the site of the Garson Fire, a target-shooting caused wildfire that sparked in June.

Oren wants to build a 24-hour outdoor shooting range that’s more accessible than the current county facility. He says shooting brings people from all walks of life together, and this could be a way to protect individual rights and public safety.

“It’s a common cause, I believe. And the biggest cause is saving people’s [lives], saving people’s property, saving our lands, and the only way we can do it is by being more responsible.”

He’s forming a coalition of business and government leaders to fund and develop this idea. But until something changes, he says we’ll have to rely on every shooter to take charge of their own actions when going out on public lands. 

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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