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San Diego County fire sparks controversy over popular shooting spot

San Diego County fire sparks controversy over popular shooting spot
Santee Fire Captain Richard Medlin signals to crews battling the Gates fire. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

As smoke billowed recently over the hill behind Wick Alexander's home in eastern San Diego County, he sat at his computer and punched out yet another email.

"When will the ban begin? Will it take another loss of life?" he wrote.

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It was similar to the email he'd written in April, calling for several nearby spots on Bureau of Land Management properties to be closed to target shooting, fearing a bullet would start a fire.

All of Alexander's many emails during the last five years have made the same plea: Shut them down.

On May 20, a fire broke out at a popular shooting spot on BLM land, dubbed "Pink Gate" for the pastel fence that blocks vehicle traffic into the area. Cal Fire has not officially determined the cause, but a witness posted a video that seemed to show a group of nearby shooters accidentally starting it.

Called the Gate fire, it charred more than 2,000 acres and prompted hundreds to evacuate from a campground in Jamul and the community of Dulzura.

It was the latest incident to stoke a years-long battle between some residents and federal authorities over whether a number of BLM properties in those communities should be permanently closed off to target shooters.

"The Gate fire was really the last straw," said County Supervisor Dianne Jacobs, who long has advocated for the spot to be closed. "Enough's enough. We need action before something really bad happens."

A dozen fires have started in the Marron Valley and Sycamore Canyon areas between 2011 and 2015, nine of them caused by shooters, according to BLM spokeswoman Samantha Storms.

Each one costs tens of thousands of dollars to extinguish. Cal Fire records show three fires caused by shooting in the area in 2012 and 2013 racked up nearly $200,000 in costs.

So why not just close off the Pink Gate?

Because there are many people who go there for recreational shooting or hunting and don't want to see it close. And, Storms said, the federal government would be required to go through a lengthy process to permanently ban shooting there.

The debate isn't unique to the backwoods of San Diego County. It crops up wherever backyards butt up against BLM land, and where the paths of hikers and mountain bikers intersect with target shooters.

Alexander said while safety concerns are high on the list, there are other problems associated with the spots. Shooters also can damage the surrounding ecosystem by sending bullets into trees or leaving piles of trash in the area.

He regularly cleans up spots used for shooting and has found everything from bullet casings to appliances filled with bullet holes.

"It's like living in a war zone," he said.

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Residents who use the space argue there may be less of an issue if more BLM properties were easier to access.

Bobby Mathews has been hunting near Pink Gate for 15 years. He said some of the problems that plague the area could be addressed with better education.

"If they aren't shooting there, they'll just shoot somewhere else," he said. "You can't close it all, and without better education, you'll just have the same problems somewhere else."

Most residents seem to agree something needs to be done about the spot, said Hannah Gbeh, who is on the Jamul Dulzura Community Planning Group.

She said she's heard from people on both sides of the issue. While gun rights and having a place to exercise those rights are important to many who live in the east county area, no one is blind to the devastation a wildfire can cause, she said.

"I don't know what the solution is, but it's a serious safety concern," she said.

According to Storms, the bureau has made a concerted effort over the years to come up with short-term solutions that would help keep the area both safe and accessible.

Those include introducing a seasonal closure between June and December. On Friday, the BLM announced federal lands would be closed to target shooting in San Diego County until the end of fire season — several days earlier than its usual restriction.

Jacobs said short-term solutions are starting to sound like excuses.

"As far as I'm concerned, the BLM is responsible for the Gate fire and any other fires that start there for their refusal to take action — to do the right thing."

Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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