Fire officials

Fire officials look on as a helicopter dumps water on a wildfire near Big Sky in November. (Chronicle file)

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An investigation into a wildfire that burned close to 700 acres east of Big Sky last fall revealed the fire was caused by target shooting, not nearby prescribed burning, federal officials announced Wednesday.

The Porcupine fire started at around 1 p.m. Nov. 5 about a mile south of the junction of U.S. Highway 191 and state Highway 64 near Big Sky. It quickly burned through meadows and timber on the eastern side of the Gallatin River.

By Nov. 6, the fire had consumed approximately 680 acres, but it didn’t grow any further, according to the Forest Service. Crews fully contained the wildfire when a winter storm hit the area two days later. No structures were damaged by the fire.

Nearby crews with the Custer Gallatin National Forest on Nov. 5 were conducting a prescribed burn to rejuvenate aspen stands at about the same time that the Porcupine fire started. The burn was about a mile away from the wildfire, officials wrote.

When Forest Service crews working on the burn learned of the nearby wildfire, they immediately called more resources to help respond and put out the prescribed burn, officials said following the incident.

Firefighters from the Yellowstone Club, the Big Sky Fire Department, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Custer Gallatin National Forest all responded.

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office issued pre-evacuation notices to people in homes on the east side of the Gallatin River.

Officials initially assumed the wildfire had been sparked by a stray ember from the prescribed burn, but two separate investigations revealed it was caused by target shooting, according to the Forest Service.

One investigation was conducted by the Forest Service. Forest Service law enforcement and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office also conducted a joint investigation.

“We appreciate everyone who worked with law enforcement to bring this investigation to a conclusion,” said Corey Lewellen, Bozeman district ranger, in a news release. “I also appreciate the community’s patience as we processed a challenging investigation.”

Over multiple months, investigators talked to many witnesses who’d made emergency calls reporting information on the wildfire. Some people said they’d heard gunshots coming from the area where the wildfire originated moments before it started.

“Investigators were ultimately able to identify the individual who was responsible for the gun fire,” the Forest Service wrote.

The person officials believe is responsible told investigators they saw flames behind their target after they were shooting. The individual tried to put out the fire but wasn’t able to because of the wind, according to officials.

The Forest Service is holding the person accused of starting the wildfire accountable, said Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer. Forest Service officials on Wednesday did not respond to requests for further information about potential penalties.

“We all need to be mindful and careful, when it comes to target shooting,” Springer said in a news release. “Be aware of the types of natural fuels beyond your target when shooting.”

The Forest Service studied the potential for target shooting to ignite flames in 2013. Tests revealed that bullets striking rocks and other hard objects can easily ignite dry, fine fuels, according to the federal agency.

“We are committed to continuing our communication and transparency as it relates to forest management and prescribed fire, and I greatly value the comments and concerns that I have heard from the Big Sky community,” Lewellen said in a news release.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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