Homemade exploding target suspected cause of Peewink Fire

Barbara Lawlor , Boulder County

On Sunday afternoon, Sugarloaf residents stood at the entrance to county road 332 that led to the scene of a wild land fire on Peewink Mountain. They were angry and upset after learning the fire had reportedly been caused by a homemade exploding target.

The fire was called in about 3:30 p.m. by a Coughlin Meadows resident who saw the smoke billowing from the saddle of Peewink Mountain. Sugarloaf firefighter Richard Kahute said he also reported seeing the smoke and then went to help control traffic on Sugarloaf Road to avoid non-emergency vehicles from entering the one-lane dirt road. About 3.6 acres of meadow was burned before firefighters were able to dig a line around the blaze.

Sugarloaf, Nederland, and Timberline Fire Protection Districts, as well as United States Forest Service, Boulder Emergency Services, Americorps, and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department responded to the call.

Just before the fire call, Sugarloaf had been toned out to respond to a motorcycle accident in Boulder Canyon near the Summer Road. A man in his 20s riding a crotch rocket had hit loose gravel, spun out, went off the edge of the road down the embankment and was thrown 35 feet after hitting a tree, landing in Boulder Creek.

When Nederland Fire Protection District emergency responders arrived at the scene, the patient was caught up in boulders with only his head showing where he was trapped for about half an hour. Firefighters waded into the icy hip-deep water and stabilized him while in the water and then performed a technical haul evacuation up the steep slope. He sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries and was transported to the hospital. Canyon traffic was delayed about an hour during the rescue.

When the fire called in, Sugarloaf firefighters turned the accident over to Nederland and then responded to the blaze. Ned firefighters headed to the fire when the accident scene was terminated.

Timberline engines were able to get in close to the fire to douse it with water and the Sugarloaf tenders kept the water coming, traveling between the fire and Primos Lake.  

About 6:30 p.m. hoses surrounded the perimeter of the fire, crews continued pumping water and hand crews dug fire lines. Crews stayed with fire overnight to make sure no hot spots ignited. No structures had been threatened. With gusting winds shifting directions all afternoon, it could have been a disastrous wildfire, but the fire departments were quick to respond and get the job done.

NFPD chief Rick Dirr says “We were all taken aback by a fire of this size happening so early in the season. We had felt that the fuel moisture was up. The fire hopped from old fuel pocket to old fuel pocket. It surprised us.”

Sugarloaf residents said they had been calling the Boulder County Commissioners, the Forest Service and the sheriff’s department about the constant shooting that was taking place in the area, saying they had been hearing more large automatic weapons in past months and were worried about the fire danger as well as the threat to hikers and residents in the area.

Exploding targets are used in recreational shooting. They contain Tannerite, which is intended to detonate when shot by a high-velocity firearm cartridge. Low-velocity shotgun ammunition will not initiate a detonation.

These detonations occur at a very high velocity, producing a large explosion and cloud, according to Wikipedia. It is marketed as a target designator that is useful for persons who are firing at long ranges. For such a use, a long-range rifle shooter sets up targets and retreats to a distant firing position. The shooter does not need to walk down-range to see if the target has been hit, as the Tannerite will detonate and serve as a highly-visible indicator.

Tannerite is also used for dramatic effect to provide explosions in weaponry demonstrations or other events. Ordinarily, firing rifle-caliber machine guns and long arms will not produce much more than a shattered target or hole (and the sound of the firing) when shot at a target. Using exploding targets can provide experience much like the exploding cars in movies.

Tannerite also has uses as a general explosive that, prior to mixing, can be sold, transported, and stored in most areas of the United States without any special permits.

In the United States, ATF regulations allow the two components to be legally purchased, since neither one is an explosive by itself.

Anyone with information about the cause of the fire should contact USFS officer Paul Krisanits at 202-541-2513.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.