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Range hopes to curb tracer bullets, fires

State foresters and local shooting-sports organizers hope a stepped-up education effort will curb the use of banned "tracer" bullets blamed for a spate of fires at the Jackson County Sports Park gun range near White City.

Tracer ammunition, which sports pyrotechnics that show a bullet's trajectory while in the air, is banned at the gun range year-round and is illegal in Oregon's state-protected lands when public-use restrictions tied to the summer wildfire season are in effect.

Use of the bullets caused a grass fire July 3 at the range, which led to the shooter receiving a citation, and four previous fires in the past month are believed to have been caused by tracer bullets at the range, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Leaders of the Rogue Valley Shooting Sports Association, which operates the range under an agreement with Jackson County, have been passing out fliers and talking with shooters as they enter the range in hopes of getting participants to follow the rules.

"We put together a program we all hope is effective, and we'll see," RVSSA President Phil Grammatica said. "People chose not to respond. They made a bad choice. The people who make good choices suffer from it."

The July 3 fire burned slightly more than a half-acre and earned a 19-year-old Medford man a $435 citation for illegal use of tracer ammunition.

The man was shooting targets on the 200-yard range with his mother, brother and father, and they were using a mix of tracer and non-tracer bullets, ODF fire investigator Jesse Blair said.

"They had no idea they had shot a tracer round," Blair said.

Blair matched a tracer bullet from the family's ammunition to a spent shell casing, and the man was cited at his residence Monday after Blair's investigation.

Family members were cooperative, but they should have paid better attention to the ammunition they were using, Blair said.

"If you don't know, don't shoot it," Blair said. 

Matt Krunglevich, state forestry's district protection planner, said state foresters have "no interest" in shutting down the range stemming from the recent fire history, which he said was an anomaly.

"It's not the gun range out there," Krunglevich said. "It's some of the people who are using it."

Krunglevich said state foresters hope RVSSA's stepped-up education efforts will end the fire streak at five.

"That's mission-critical," Krunglevich said.

Tracer bullets have been around for 100 years as a way for shooters to follow the trajectories of their bullets instead of relying on optics to check targets. The bullets are fitted with a burning agent such as phosphorus on their tips, burning as they fly so the arc can be seen by the naked eye.

These bullets, however, contain more burning agents than conventional ammunition, creating potential fire hazards when they strike flammable materials. That's why the Oregon Department of Forestry in 2012 banned their use during public regulated-use closures during fire season.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.