Jun Isidoro says there's only one way to safely enjoy his favorite sport of target shooting when he ventures into Angeles National Forest. He positions himself on a rise well away from the crowds at the Middle Shooting Area and lifts the trunk of his car as a barricade against stray bullets.
"It's just like a war zone down there," he said while preparing to aim his .44-caliber handgun at a homemade target. "It's just like Vietnam. We know it's not safe."
On a typical Saturday or Sunday, more than 200 people crowd into the Middle Shooting Area, one of the forest's 13 designated ranges where it is legal to shoot without supervision. Marked by a sign pocked with bullet holes, the shooting area is in a narrow, steep-walled canyon that is strewn with thousands of bullet fragments and shell canisters.
Authorities said a Montrose man was fatally shot in an accident last week at Middle Shooting Area, located about 20 miles north of La Canada Flintridge. He was the sixth person in five years to be killed by stray bullets at a forest shooting area, Angeles National Forest officials said.
James Alan Washiko, 30, was shot in the back as he loaded guns into the trunk of his car, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Van Mosely. From 20 to 30 people were in the area, Mosely said, and investigators have not been able to determine who fired the bullet.
Shooting areas such as the one where Washiko died pose a complex problem for forest officials, who say they are caught between the wishes of shooting groups, the concerns of environmentalists and the desire for a safe preserve.
"It is a truly horrible safety situation, but we are faced with a tremendous amount of pressure from gun advocates to keep the shooting areas open," said Christine Rose, district ranger for the Tujunga Ranger District.
Seven people were reported injured this year from stray bullets in shooting areas, and 85 people were cited for using illegal firearms, said Robert Liebershal, Angeles Forest fire prevention patrolman. He said that figure is probably only a fraction of the illegal activity since rangers rarely patrol the areas, generally only responding to reported incidents.
Of the 195 fires reported in the forest this year, 10% were started in shooting areas, Liebershal said--among them this year's largest fire that started in Tule Shooting Area and consumed 11,000 acres in the Castaic Lake region.
"Shooting is an activity that's only as safe as all the people who are in there, which means it is probably not very safe," Liebershal said.
Since 1981, when officials tried to discourage indiscriminate shooting in the mountainous, 1,000-square-mile forest by designating 16 shooting areas, three of the areas have been closed because they are unmanageable or unsafe. But forest officials say they have no plans to close the remaining areas.
"I think we'd prefer to see something like this under a concessionaire where it would be regulated and there would be controls on it. But right now we're definitely trapped between the wishes of a number of different groups," Rose said. "The safety has me concerned and the environmental impact has me concerned, but we don't know what to do because people really seem to want this."
Bob Grego, a spokesman for the Southern California chapter of the National Rifle Assn., said the shooting areas are an important resource for marksmen who choose to shoot at targets of their own making away from the restrictions of shooting ranges.
"The National Forest Service has determined that shooting is a viable activity for the forest, so I think it's up to them to provide shooting areas," Grego said. "Some activities are more difficult to supervise than others, and there are irresponsible types of people in all walks of life, including shooting. I don't know exactly what the solution is. Perhaps, since the shooting areas are so crowded, we need more shooting areas."
Sierra Club Wants Fewer Areas
But the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club has proposed the opposite. Spokesmen for the club say they have asked forest officials to cut down on acreage devoted to shooting.
"The Forest Service doesn't have the staff to supervise these areas carefully, so there're hazards to other forest users and to the users themselves," said Bob Kanne, vice chairman of the Angeles chapter. "Most people go to the forest to appreciate the landscape, the wildlife, the climate. But those aren't the reasons why the shooters go there."
The designated shooting areas are unique to forests in Southern California, said Jay Humphreys, spokesman for the National Forest Service in Washington. Many of the 156 forests nationwide have controlled target-shooting ranges where safety regulations are enforced and fees are charged. Only two forests--Cleveland National Forest and San Bernardino National Forest--have unpatrolled shooting areas similar to those in Angeles National Forest, he said.