April 14, 2014 Updated: April 14, 2014 at 9:48 am
Target shooters, beware.
As summer nears, temperatures will rise, winds will pick up, forest fuels will dry out and the increasingly popular hobby that sends loud cracks of gunfire echoing through U.S. Forest Service lands will become more dangerous.
A recent brush fire near Westcreek in the Pike National Forest sounded a loud warning about the type of damage target shooting can cause.
"All it takes is one spark," said Sgt. Ron Hanavan of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.
Hanavan said the 3-acre blaze that started March 29 in a heavily used shooting area near Turkey Trails just west of Colorado 67 brought in three fire crews from Teller County and another from the Forest Service. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office spokesman and Frank Landis of the Forest Service said the fire likely was caused by a person shooting at a target that is prohibited in the area. Hanavan and Forest Service fire technician Ralph Bella said there are eight to 10 fire starts in the Turkey Trails area each year.
Although the cause of the fire is under investigation, Bella said "shooting would be the first thing suspected in areas like Turkey Trails."
"It's definitely a popular area," Hanavan said, noting that the area off U.S. Forest Road 343 "is not by definition a shooting range."
The Forest Service released new regulations in early March concerning targets that can be used in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands. The order prohibits shooting firearms, air rifles or gas guns at anything other than "cardboard targets, paper targets, manufactured metallic targets, manufactured thrown-type clay targets, manufactured polymer ground-bouncing or self-healing firearm targets, or empty metal cans, 16 ounces or less in size."
Those violating the regulations could be convicted of a Class-B misdemeanor. The order says the penalty could be a $5,000 fine and up to six months in prison.
Hanavan said the Turkey Trails area is regularly littered with evidence of people using illegal targets such as old appliances, used propane tanks and even exploding targets bought from mainstream retailers like Cabela's.
The Forest Service banned exploding targets in August. At that time, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver said that 16 fires in the Rocky Mountain West had been caused by sparks from the targets that immediately explode when struck. Three of those fires were in Colorado, including the Springer fire that burned 1,145 acres near Lake George in June 2012.
Hanavan and Landis said shooting at "inappropriate" targets is a wildfire danger in the dry conditions that have plagued the Pikes Peak region over the past several years. They said a bullet striking a rock could send sparks flying and potentially lead to the next catastrophic blaze.
Bella said Forest Service officials continually move target shooting up the list of their top concerns when it comes to human-caused wildfires. Campfires are the most common cause, Bella said, but target shooting is on the rise.
"Target shooting is really starting to make its presence felt," he said. "You drive around (the national forest) and all you hear is shooting."
Landis said Turkey Trails, Rampart Range Road north of Woodland Park, Mount Herman Road near Monument and Old Stage Road, which climbs into the foothills southwest of The Broadmoor, are the most popular areas in the Pikes Peak Ranger District for target shooting "because of convenience and access."
There are not designated shooting areas in the 300,000-acre Pikes Peak Ranger District, Landis said. But there are a few areas where shooting is off limits. Those restricted zones are located along Colorado 67 near Manitou Lake north of Woodland Park, in designated areas near Rampart Reservoir, in parts of the forest near Mount Herman in Monument and in southwest El Paso County.
Officials encourage enthusiasts to be discriminating and consider the type of firearm they're using when choosing a place to practice. Landis added that target shooters should be sure to shoot toward an "earthen backstop" to protect themselves, others and the forest.
"It's up to the user to find an adequate area," Landis said.