Some of the wildfires scorching the West this year were sparked by unusual culprits: Gun owners. Or, more specifically, gun shooters.
As with the Dump fire in Utah, which flared hard enough on Friday to force the evacuation of 1,500 homes and 9,000 people, nearly two dozen conflagrations, officials say, have started accidentally by careless target shooters whose bullet sparks touch off dried-up pinon and wild grasses.
“Now is not a good time to take your gun outside and start shooting in cheat grass that’s tinder dry,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday.
While authorities can ban certain fire-related activities when fire risks are high, that’s not true with guns, the carrying and use of which are staunchly protected by state and federal law, including several recent Supreme Court decisions.
In Utah, for example, a state law prohibits the state from enacting emergency bans on guns, putting Gov. Herbert in a position of instead asking county governments to issue emergency rules for outdoor gun use as wildfire conditions prevail across the West.
In North Carolina, gun rights activists have successfully fought legal battles to make sure governors can’t ban guns during emergencies.
Moves to protect gun owners from emergency gun bans is an emerging front in the national debate over gun rights.
In March, a committee in the Colorado legislature killed a proposed bill that would have restricted the state from banning citizen-carry of guns during an emergency. “Common sense dictates that in an emergency situation… guns only make things worse,” a witness from the League of Women Voters told Colorado legislators at a hearing.
Recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the right of Americans to arm themselves for protection have played a major role in the changing legal dynamic around the citizenry’s ability to access their guns during emergencies.
The Supreme Court decisions have flipped “the burden onto the government and legislatures to show why they need to restrict what the court has already said is an individual right,” John Velleco, a spokesman for Gun Owners of American, told the World Net Daily news site.
Authorities now say 20 of Utah’s wildfires this year were started by target shooters, compared to 24 in total last year — with three months left in the western wildfire season. The Dump fire near Saratoga Springs, Utah, started near a landfill when the spark from a bullet hitting a rock set off a patch of grass, which then quickly spread, fueled by dry conditions and gale-force winds.
Colorado officials are also trying to figure out if the 1,200 acre Lake George wildfire was sparked by a ricocheting bullet.
Although this has been a fairly standard year for wildfires following the massive Texas wildfires in 2011, hundreds of fires have burned and dozens continue to burn in places like Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii, and New Mexico, where the state’s largest wildfire ever is still smoldering through the Gila National Forest. The Fort Collins fire in Colorado has destroyed nearly 200 homes and caused one death.
Humans, whether accidentally or on purpose, start six times as many fires as lightning in the US every year. Activities such as barbecuing and camping-related fires are often cited as causes of wildfires, while arson or careless disposal of cigarettes also remain problems. Authorities regularly target such activities under emergency wildfire declarations.
When it comes to shooting guns on the tinder-dry western plateaus, though, even local authorities so far have refrained from trying to impose emergency bans on shooting, instead urging gun owners to voluntarily refrain from loading up and heading out to the range.
“Citizens do not surrender their civil rights just because of a natural or man-made disaster,” Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in support of a lawsuit in North Carolina filed by gun owners after a 2010 snow storm put a gun ban into effect.