Wildfires spark gun control debate in Utah

Wildfire officials in Utah say erupted after gunfire in area set it off
Wildfire officials in Utah say erupted after gunfire in area set it off

(CBS News) SALT LAKE CITY - Two new wildfires were burning in Utah Tuesday, and officials said one of them was sparked by gunfire.

Recreational shooting is being blamed for at least 20 fires this year in the state. It's an activity long enjoyed and fervently protected by enthusiasts -- but firing a gun near the high and dry grass of Utah is sparking flames and igniting controversy throughout the state.

"This is gonna be really (requiring) everybody working together," says Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican. On Monday, Herbert empowered the state's top forests official to restrict firearms near cities and towns where fire danger is extreme.

"Our biggest problem is people being foolish and not using common sense," Herbert lamented.

A recent fire outside Salt Lake City erupted when a recreational target practice led to flames that engulfed an area near a dump. Nine thousand people were temporarily forced from their homes and more than 6,000 acres were charred before the fire was contained.

Gun advocacy groups say banning weapons is a step too far.

In a statement to CBS News, Utah's Shooting Sports Council said, "We may concede that the improper acts of some shooters may have in fact caused fires, but to impugn all shooters and the sport is to demonize an activity that is safely done by tens of thousands of Utahns every week."

Salt Lake City Fire Captain Richard Boden warns conditions throughout the state are ripe for a wildfire season like no other.

"We're extremely concerned," Boden says. " ... We know it's not if it's going to occur, it's a matter of when."

While gun owners KUTV interviewed weren't willing to give up their weapons, they said they were getting the message.

"I certainly wouldn't want to be responsible for a fire that burned somebody's house," said one, Tony Thompson. "I wouldn't even take a chance with it."

At a West Valley City shooting range, manager Brent Epperson says the fear of fire has led to a boon in the firing range business.

"We're probably seeing 15 to 20 or more people a day telling us when they come here that they're coming here because of the fire danger," he noted.

Gun owner Yetive Jones says, "Guns have a lot of spark, and those bullets can fly pretty dang fast."

Jones, a grandmother, has been using the range to teach her grandchildren about gun safety and to warn about devastating fires guns can ignite.

Just don't ask her to give up her gun.

"I don't think the standards should be any higher for any one person who sets a fire," Jones says. "Granted, somebody shooting who accidentally sets it off, they're going to feel bad about it. ... But there's nothing you can do once a fire starts."

More than 110,000 acres have burned in Utah this year. The majority of the fires have been caused by humans.

The big concern now for state and local officials is that the fire season has just started and could easily go into hunting season this fall.

To see Dan Rascon's report, click on the video in the player above.