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Target shooters have always enjoyed the sight and sound of a perfect shot.

But thanks to a relatively new product on the market, the experience now threatens the safety of firefighters and the property of anyone who lives in a fire-prone area.

The emergence of exploding targets, which can be bought off the shelf in many stores, has started two fires in the Black Hills and one near Chadron, Neb., which led to charges against the target shooters.

As the targets become more popular, it is causing alarm in the firefighting community.

"Within the last one to two years, we've seen a large increase in their use and the wildfires that have been caused by them," said Special Agent Brenda J. Schultz of the U.S. Forest Service.

Fun to flames

When the three men set up to shoot at the Spotted Tail area one day in October 2012, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

The federal forest land, four or five miles south of Chadron, Neb., is popular with recreational shooters.

But the shooters were using a new type of target, one that explodes when hit. When this one exploded, it sparked a wildfire that burned 83 acres of U.S. Forest land.

According to law enforcement and news reports, the March 17, 2012, Beretta II fire that torched 25 acres near Black Hawk was started by exploding targets as was the December 2012 Commissary Point Fire in the Black Hills that burned at least 21 acres

In addition, fires caused by exploding targets in Washington state burned over 7,000 acres and cost $4 million to extinguish, according to Schultz.

The targets, which are illegal on national forest land, come from a variety of manufacturers and all pose fire threats, she said.

"We are currently not seeing that any particular brand of exploding target is any less or any more likely to start fires," Schultz said. "The components across the brands are reasonably consistent, ammonium nitrate and an aluminum powder."

Simple, devastating

Exploding target manufacturers sell those two materials in separate containers because once they are combined they are considered an explosive. At that point, it is illegal under federal law to transport the target.

A YouTube video search for exploding targets returned nearly 180,000 videos. Footage shows everything from trees being felled by exploding targets placed inside them, to other targets placed on tree stumps that explode into fireballs.

Both Schultz and Bill Gabbert, the publisher of Wildfire Today, say the phenomenon of targets causing conflagrations is relatively new.

"I'm not aware of any large numbers of fires caused by exploding targets before 2012," said Gabbert, who is also a former wildland firefighter and fire investigator.

On his Wildfire Today website, Gabbert has identified 23 fires around the country — not including the two Black Hills fires — started by the targets since June 2012.

Despite some manufacturers' claims that the targets are not flammable, Gabbert says there's enough evidence otherwise.

"They absolutely start fires," Gabbert said. "I see no justification or compelling evidence that they remain legal.

"I'm pro guns, but I see no use for exploding targets."

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Gabbert says the targets should be banned, or states should have more say in regulating them. The governor of Utah earlier this year signed a bill that would allow its state forester to ban target shooting when dry conditions raise the fire danger.

Denny Gorton, the fire administrator for Pennington County, says he doesn't believe that sort of legislation is necessary.

"I would probably say just better education at this point would be the way to go," said Gorton, also president of the South Dakota Firefighters Association. "I'm not sure we've been able to show enough of a correlation to get it regulated or outlawed."

Tom Raines of the South Dakota Shooters Association, the state arm of the National Rifle Association, questioned why target shooters need exploding targets.

"My first reaction is, it may be showy, but it's not very practical," he said of exploding targets. "We used to shoot rubber water balloons, obviously they didn't start any fire."

Schultz and Gabbert recommended milk jugs filled with water as another alternative.

The Beretta II fire, which ignited in March 2012, happened at a popular shooting spot on Beretta Road off of Highway 16 just west of Rockerville. It took more than 100 firefighters, two planes and a Black Hawk helicopter to extinguish, according to previous reports.

Three Chadron residents were charged in the Spotted Tail fire, according to previous reports: Jacob Marshall, 27, William Jones, 26, and Andrew Meister, 26.

Marshall and Jones each faced two counts: leaving a fire without extinguishing it and using an explosive. Meister was charged with leaving a fire without extinguishing it.

Each count carries penalties of up to $5,000 in fines and six months in jail. The Forest Service has said it plans to seek restitution for the cost of fighting of fighting the fire, which was initially estimated at $175,000, according to previous reports.

Chadron Fire Chief Patrick Gould said the men who allegedly ignited the Spotted Tail fire apparently drove off without calling authorities, he said. The area was a grassy area with lots of combustible material.

"It's just if people would use their common sense," Gould said. "But they don't seem to do that."

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Contact Joe O'Sullivan at 394-8414 or joe.osullivan@rapidcityjournal.com

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