Bullets can cause wildfires, here’s how target shooting turns dangerous in the wild


SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Utah has had 1,320 fires reported this year and 1020 of them have been human-caused. According to Utah Fire Info, 51 fires this year have been started by target shooting.

How does a bullet start a wildfire?

It usually happens in one of three ways, according to Unified Fire PIO Matt Macfarland, the use of steel core bullets, exploding targets, and the use of incendiary or tracer rounds.

The William Fire was caused by target shooting. Picture Courtesy: Jennifer Hansen,

Matt Mcfarland told ABC4 News, “A bullet hitting a rock can be like flint and metal being used to start a campfire.” With Utah’s quartz, granite, and limestone rocks being everywhere-he’s not kidding.

Bullet causing an impact flash. Courtesy U.S. Forest service

When you first thing about it, most people would guess the hot bullet coming out the barrel of the gun would be enough to start a fire, but unless it’s a tracer or incendiary round, even though it’s warm with friction as it flies through the air…the flight of the bullet actually has a cooling effect.

Once the bullet makes an impact on a rock, and the metal parts shatter, that’s when you get in trouble. According to a study by the BLM in 2013, if the bullets hit a rock that can spark, then the spark dropping into the surrounding dry grass can start the fire.

When a bullet hits a target it can also shatter, then the kinetic energy turns to heat..and when the hot parts land in the dry vegetation, it can start a fire.

To illustrate how it works, here is a picture of bullet fragments igniting peat moss from a study done by the U.S. Forest Service and USDA. Those small wisps of smoke in the peat inside the bullet trap could start a fire in the wild.

Smolder bullet fragments in peat: Courtesy U.S.F.S and U.S.D.A.

In BLM’s study, solid copper bullets have the highest risk of causing ignition. Then the steel core and steel jacket bullets.

Unified Fire’s Division Chief Steve Ball, who leads the arson and bomb squad, said he has seen where steel core bullets have created fires. He confirmed studies where he has seen it happen.

Exploding targets hit by bullets are the next cause. Sometimes an exploding target can have a flash that is so fast you can’t see it. Other, made of different materials the flash can be a lot bigger, and when hitting drought dry leaves can start an instant blaze.

Here’s a picture of a test done by the U.S. forest service of an exploding target when the bullet hits. You can see the size of the flash.

Courtesy: U.S. Forest Service

The next way bullets cause fires is if tracer and incendiary rounds are fired. These bullets have phosphors burning on them and are like throwing a high-speed match into the dry vegetation. Chief Ball said incendiary and tracer rounds “can and will start fires.”

How can you stay safer when target shooting in the backcountry? According to readyforwildfire.org, you should:

  • Place your targets on dirt and gravel – shoot in areas free of dry vegetation
  • Avoid shooting on hot and windy days.
  • Use safe targets – steel targets can cause sparks, use clay or paper targets.
  • Ammunition type matters – Steel Core, and solid copper ammunition have a high potential for fire.
  • Do not use exploding targets.
  • Do not use incendiary or tracer ammunition.

All of the agencies suggest you check the weather reports first, and you can use ABC4 News Pinpoint Weather to help you know what you are facing when you go into the wilds. Remember Utah’s mountains and wilderness areas are very dry. Be safe, and be careful.

If you have any questions about the conditions in Utah’s backcountry you can go to the Forest Service or BLM websites.

If you are out shooting and start a fire or see one start, call 911.

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