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Sources: Target shooter sparked Sawmill Fire; 40,000 acres burned

A man target shooting on state land Sunday morning started the Sawmill Fire that had burned 40,000 acres by Wednesday midday, according to several sources who spoke with the Green Valley News.

The man was firing at exploding targets when brush apparently ignited near Box Canyon and the Santa Rita Ranch about 11 a.m. He tried to put out the blaze, then called to report it. He later turned himself in, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

John Cambra, a public information officer with the Southeast Arizona Incident Management Team, the team fighting the fire, would not confirm the reports.

“It's human-caused, under investigation,” he said, adding that there were no arrests. He would not discuss whether anybody had been questioned.

Heidi Schewel, a public affairs officer for the Coronado National Forest, also would not confirm the reports.

“Our statement is (that) our case is under investigation,” she said.

Exploding targets are created by mixing two types of powder in a container and are detonated when shot by a high-velocity firearm bullet.

40,000 acres

Fueled by heavy winds and bone-dry grass, the Sawmill Fire continued its march east on Tuesday, charring an estimated 22,000 acres and prompting law enforcement officials to prepare to evacuate residents of about 400 homes east of the Santa Rita Mountains.

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By midday Wednesday, officials estimated that the fire had burned about 40,000 acres, and was about seven percent contained.

Pima County and Cochise County sheriff’s department personnel were issuing pre-evacuation orders to residents of Mescal, Rain Valley and the J-6 Ranch area, Pima County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Eric Johnson said. Mescal and the J-6 Ranch area are outside Benson; Rain Valley is between Sonoita and Whetstone.

Earlier in the day, nearly 100 people in the Hilton Ranch area east of State Highway 83 were also warned they might have to evacuate, Johnson said.

Nearly 100 people already had been evacuated from Greaterville, Hilton Ranch and the Singing Valley Road area, said Manny Cordova, a public information officer for the team handling the fire. Twenty to 30 of those are staying at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Sonoita while the rest have chosen to stay with family or neighbors.

Started Sunday

The human-caused fire began around 11 a.m. Sunday north of Madera Canyon and quickly grew.

Fueled by gusts of up to 35 mph, it sparked the evacuation Sunday of about a dozen people from near Box Canyon and Santa Rita Ranch, but they were allowed back into their homes that evening.

The fire crested the mountain Sunday night and by Tuesday evening had prompted the closure of Highway 83 from Interstate 10 to Highway 82 in Sonoita. Nearly 300 firefighters from across the state were assigned to it, Cambra said.

Nearly three dozen homes and ranches near the eastern slope were evacuated to the Sonoita Fairgrounds on Monday and the American Red Cross set up another evacuation shelter at Pima County’s Southeast Regional Park Shooting Range. The fire command center north of Sonoita was moved south to the fairgrounds as the fire bore down.

Among those evacuated was Sister Vicki Murray and 10 others from Santa Rita Abbey.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had to evacuate, even with the Monument Fire,” she said. She has been at the monastery since 1972. “Everyone has been wonderful to us. A woman offered to pull all 11 of us up in her bed and breakfast for the night.”

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Having opened their doors for the 2011 Monument Fire, fairgrounds manager Jen Rinaldi said that it’s “just something you do” as a community-based facility. The fairgrounds has 180 stalls to shelter livestock and room for hundreds of people.

According to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, residents of the J-6 Area were told they could also stay at Benson First Baptist Church and the Tucson Dragway Pit area of the Pima County Fairgrounds should evacuations become necessary. The sheriff’s department’s Facebook page also offered tips on where they could house their animals.

Bobbie Young, administrator for the historic Empire Ranch in Sonoita, said she was anxiously awaiting word about the ranch. She’s in the middle of a move to California, and said the ranch's site host was evacuated. There are seven 140-year-old structures on the BLM-owned property, including the main ranch house and three barns.

Late Tuesday afternoon, there were 300 firefighters on the ground, three helicopters were battling the blaze and, when the winds would allow, fixed-wing aircraft were dropping fire retardant.

Crews were working to keep the fire south of Box Canyon Road, west of Forest Road 165 and east of Sawmill Canyon, according to an Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management news release. Rosemont Mine evacuated ranchers Monday.

There was some concern that high winds could cause the fire, which was burning through tall grasses, brush and piñon-juniper trees, to head back toward the western slope a few miles from Green Valley, Cambra said. Roughly 30 firefighters remained on the western side Tuesday afternoon, putting out flare-ups.

Exploding targets

Exploding targets contain chemicals that mix to produce a loud noise when penetrated by a high velocity bullet. Although federal land managers have banned exploding targets in at least a dozen national forests in four Western states, they are not banned in Arizona.

Ed Chavez, owner of R&A Tactical in Tucson, said exploding targets used to be popular, but sales have dropped to once or twice a month at his store.

“It’s just the fact that you can put it behind a target and if you hit it, you get an adrenaline rush,” he said. “It’s strictly something to have fun with.”

Exploding targets can be dangerous if misused, Chavez said.

“In large amounts, they can cause a lot of damage and possibly injure or kill someone,” he said.

Doug MacKinlay, owner of Diamondback Shooting Sports in Tucson, spoke with exploding target manufacturers and watched several YouTube videos online before deciding he won’t carry exploding targets.

“Exploding targets are fun if used properly, but you’re always going to get that one individual who’s going to say, ‘Wow, that’s what a quarter-pound does, let’s see what five pounds does or 10 pounds or 20 pounds will do.”

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1 comment on this story

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76 comments
Apr 26, 2017, 11:31 am
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This seems to be the second fire set off due to recreational shooters. Something should be done to limit the risk of fires caused by those doing target practice.

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Fry Fire District

The Sawmill Fire on Monday night.