By Miriam Raftery
July 22, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – Revelations that six wildfires in the past six weeks have been caused by recreational shooting in East County has caused a firestorm of controversy.
Cal-Fire, joined by residents of Dulzura, Potrero and other areas bordering the Otay Wilderness area have asked the federal Bureau of Land Management to ban shooting on its properties within San Diego County for the duration of this year’s expected severe fire season.
“We would like to institute prevention measures so that nobody’s hosue burns down,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief John Kremensky, who is assigned to the Dulzura Battalion, told ECM. “We know that other federal agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service, have implemented temporary closure to shooting during this high wildfire danger time.”
Chief Kremensky confirmed that six fires in or near the Otay Wilderness area, owned by the BLM, in the past six weeks or so have been caused by shooting of firearms. He said he could not recall any fires caused by shooting last year.
Kremensky sent a letter July 18 to the BLM. In his letter, Kremensky stated that he has been contacted by local residents who claim they have contacted the BLM with their concerns, but received no responses. "I am asking BLM to impose a temporary no shooting ban within San Diego County during the remainder of the 2012 fire sesaon as a means of prevention," Kremensky wrote, adding that a directive from Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar makes clear such steps are "warranted to reduce the risks of new wildfires."
Clayton R. Howe at the BLM responded in a July 18 letter to Chief Kremensky. Howe said that since June 23, he has been implementing Fire Prevention Patrols to educating shooters on safety, educating 47 shooters over the July 4 weekend alone. In addition, he stated that he has proposed three possible prevention actions.
Those potential actions include closing BLM lands south of State Route 94 to shooting during fire season, putting up signs to inform people that the area is closed due to shooting abuses and fire danger, and locking additional gates to restrict access. (Some gates onto the BLM land have already been locked in recent years to keep vehicle traffic out of the Otay Wilderness area, though people on foot can circumvent the gates.)
The proposals have sparked passionate responses on both sides of the issue among community residents.
“The further closure of more and more public lands to the general public will do nothing to make a major dent in the fire problem,” said Mitch Dashiell, a target shooter and retired Naval officer who owns a business selling sporting goods. “I greatly enjoyed the back country as a young adult and introduced my kids to it many year ago, on public lands. We never left anything but footprints. I want my grandkids to be able to enjoy it also without finding locked gates everywhere they go.”
As an alternative to “heavy-handed” punishment of the public for the actions of a few individuals, he wants to see authorities punish those who violate the rules instead.
John Hyde, in a an online discussion post, suggested a middle ground. He wants to see a limit on “shooting non-metal jacketed bullets only, and no metal targets” or alternatively, “maybe just shotgun only, or maybe no guns without a hunting license” as well as a requirement for shooters to complete a fire arms safety course.
But resident Laura Cosby notes that there is a gun range at the end of nearby Marron Valley Road where target practice is safe. “Still these shooters feel a need to endanger lives and property to an already traumatized area….These shooters have no idea what it is like to go through two firestorms and to not know if your home is still standing for a week, or the long recovery process taken to get a neighborhood back on its feet both physically and emotionally.”
Some residents have reported signs of target shooting at boards, possibly chemical packets with exploding ordnance. Cal Fire’s Kremensky said he has received those reports, but is not certain if chemical packets caused the recent fires.
Robin Brailsford, a Dulzura artist and property owner, says she hears gunfire daily. “What does it cost to put out fires caused by people out there?” she asked, adding that she has found cigarette butts tossed on the ground—another fire hazard. She supports the proposed actions to limit shooting. “This is a very, very needed restriction.”
She also wants to see all-terrain vehicles and motorized dirt bikes restricted during red flag alerts. “During the Harris Fire, there were people racing around to have fun before the fire got here.” The BLM has limited ATVs to dirt roads, not dry brush, but Brailsford believes that is not enough to assure the safety of her community. She cited a critical need to protect homesteads, oak trees and the water supply.
Thus far, Cal Fire has managed to keep the shooting-caused fires to under 20 acres. But as the brush grows dryer and should firefighting resources be spread thin due to multiple fires, that could change.
“Every time they put these fires out, it drains all the ponds. If we suck up all the water in July, there will be nothing left when we need it. We’ve been lucky six times this year,” Brailsford concluded, asking how many times residents should be forced to rely on luck to protect their homes and lives.
“Twenty-five percent of my neighbors lost their homes to fire in 2007,” she recalled. “We were evacuated for nine days and had no power for 30. The land was black from stem to sterm, the community torn asunder. None of us will ever forget it. We are only now beginning to recover."
The fire survivor concluded, "Though disaster brings out the best of us all, let’s be smart enough to not go there again, unless we have to.”