Early fires out of season & small: Sign of what's ahead

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SUN VALLEY, NV (KOLO) The weather's not even springlike. It's cool and wet. The usual fuels haven't cured, but wildfires are here and that's not good news.

So far, they've been small, really small. One sits in the hills above the north end of Sun Valley.

As burn scars go, this one hardly qualifies. In fact, fire investigator Ryan Elliott was a little apologetic about showing it to us.

Someone had set up a target at this site, and fired some rounds of .303 ammunition at it. One of those rounds had likely hit a steel stand on the target. A bullet striking a hard surface had become an increasingly common cause for wildfires.

"When that bullet disintegrates, you've got temperatures you need just from that bullet disintegrating to ignite a fire," says Ryan Elliott, the lead fire investigator for the local Bureau of Land Management office.

The area in the hills above the north end of Sun Valley is crisscrossed with trails. It's popular with off-road enthusiasts and target shooters. In some spots the ground is littered with spent shells and cartridges. You'll also see trash and abandoned cars shot up. Anything left up there is apparently considered fair game.

Whomever the shooter was, there's evidence they knew they'd started a fire and made attempts to put it out and then left. They were long gone when firefighters arrived.

This fire may not seem like much and, in fact it wasn't, but last year not too far from tere, we saw what it could have become.

The Chimney 2 fire last September burned just over the ridge. It was also caused by target shooters. Firefighters were lucky that day. The wind was blowing the flames away from nearby homes. Still it burned more than 180 acres and cost thousands to fight.

The conditions, the weather, the still-uncured cheat grass, all would seem to allow us to relax a little longer, but this fire and another recent one nearby show the danger is here. Elliott says it's lurking in last year's fuels, compacted by winter snows, just waiting for an ember.

"What they are creating is a very good fuel bed for trapping embers and fire ignition."

The resulting fire, he says, won't spread as fast, but the ember that sparks it can remain for some time in that mat of compacted grass, waiting for a puff of wind to bring it alive.

So, the danger is present now. Elliott says it's cause for an extra measure of caution for shooters.

"Are there fuels around my back stop that could catch on fire? And if there are, take out a shovel and clean out around your target area, so that your impact area is, where the bullets are impacting there's no fuels to burn."

And while you're out there, he says, pick up what he calls your 'trigger trash"--those spent shells and cartridges. It's litter and, believe it or not, taxpayers' dollars are being spent hiring people to pick up after you.

Copyright KOLO-TV 2019