SAN FRANCISCO — Bomb fins poking up from beneath the northern Nevada desert have prompted the Navy to dispatch more than 150 personnel on foot to comb public lands near the Fallon Naval Air Station for unexploded bombs.
Tons of potentially explosive ordnance, from 1,000-pound gravity bombs to explosive-filled 20-millimeter cannon shells, have been found, some just off U.S. Highway 50 and in recreation areas favored by off-road-vehicle riders.
Navy spokesman Olin Briggs said the Navy routinely sweeps its bombing ranges for unexploded ordnance, but not until now did it believe it necessary to search on adjoining lands, which are open to the public. He said no one has ever been injured by naval explosives accidentally dropped off Nevada ranges.
"The idea here is to try to prevent this stuff going off," he said.
The biggest fear, Briggs added, is that souvenir hunters could mistake live ammunition for inert, or non-explosive, test bombs. "The uninitiated may not be able to distinguish one from the other," he said. "Only trained (explosive ordnance disposal) personnel can tell for sure just by looking at it."
Nevada Gov. Robert J. Miller has protested strongly to the Navy for trying to conduct the cleanup without first informing the public of the potential danger of live bombs in public areas.
"Nevada welcomes military participation in our state," he said, "but at the same time, the military has some obligation to the people of the state of Nevada. In this case, they did not meet that obligation."
As an example, Miller said, state workers have counted about 50 bomb craters outside the limits of the Bravo-17 bomb range near U.S. Highway 50, about 37 miles east of the air station. Some craters were as much as a mile into public lands. One photo showed a public off-road trail flanked by several craters.
"It was just good fortune that someone wasn't right there when those bombs went off," Miller said in a telephone interview.
Briggs, the Navy spokesman, said it was the fins of an unexploded bomb in that area that prompted the sweep, the first for unexploded bombs in the area since Fallon was founded as an Army Air Force base in 1942. He said some bombs could date back that far, but most found so far are of more recent vintage.
He said live bombs can be lost in a number of ways without being detected. For example, a pilot flying at 500 m.p.h. cannot tell if only one of the eight bombs dropped fails to explode. Dud bombs dropped at that speed can skip like a stone across the desert for up to a mile, Briggs said.
The fins were discovered by commanding officer Capt. Rex Rackowitz during a helicopter tour of the base and its bombing ranges the day after he took charge of the air station on July 28. Rackowitz said it took three months to make arrangements for enough bomb-disposal personnel to clean up the area.
Rackowitz did not make the problem public for fear of encouraging souvenir hunters. Miller, however, fears that people may have found the ordnance anyway; he has set up a toll-free number for people who want expert help in disposing of potentially explosive bombs and shells picked up in the desert.