Police officials are raising questions about the safety of mobile shooting ranges operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after several fires have broken out in the facilities.
The most recent fire broke out on October 10 at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, injuring two deputies, who suffered third-degree burns.
According to officials, the blaze ignited around 9:30 a.m. in a 53-foot trailer adjacent to the men’s jail at the detention center.
The trailer is used by the agency as a mobile shooting range for law enforcement training and is not directly related to the jail operations.
So far, authorities do not have reason to believe the jail is connected to the cause of the fire, even though the detention center has had fire safety issues of its own in the past.
The department said the two deputies inside the trailer at the time were taking part in department-mandated recertification testing.
The injured deputies were initially rushed to Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in critical but stable condition.
From there, they were transferred to Los Angeles General Medical Center for further medical treatment. Officials declined to disclose their identities but confirmed that both are veteran members of the Sheriff’s Department, with one serving for 21 years and the other for 17 years.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, with law enforcement authorities prioritizing the medical care of the injured deputies.
“It is extremely early in the investigation to determine the cause of this fire,” Sheriff Robert Luna said during a news conference. “We need to know why this happened and get to the bottom of it so we prevent it from happening again.”
Since the blaze, the department has shut down all of its mobile firing ranges and launched an internal investigation. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was also called in for assistance.
According to firearms and use-of-force expert Emanuel Kapelsohn, head of the Peregrine Corp. consulting firm, said mobile ranges are frequently employed by law enforcement agencies across the country for different training purposes.
“There are many types of trailer ranges,” he said. “Some are used just for simulations with electronic systems where you fire laser beams or other projectiles. Some are used for regular ammunition.”
Kapelsohn added that mobile ranges offer flexibility in choosing training locations and enable practicing in various lighting conditions.
However, he also addressed the importance of proper ventilation and maintenance, particularly when live ammunition is used.
Notably, the recent incident is not the first time a fire has occurred in a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department mobile shooting range.
In 2019, a flaming trailer was extinguished in Marina del Rey, but no injuries were reported.
Officials believe the fire may have been caused by a power tool in the trailer.
“It became a full-on inferno,” L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Propster said of the wild blaze that nearly consumed three deputies.
To investigate the latest fire, the department’s arson explosives team first waited for the ammunition inside the mobile range to cool, owing to risks that they could reignite.
The fire apparently continued to burn for hours after it initially started but was eventually contained without spreading to nearby buildings or trailers.
The first-recorded incident of a fire in a mobile training range by the LACSD was in 2016, when sparks from a contractor’s power tool triggered the blaze.
There have been three reported fires in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department mobile shooting ranges in total, with the 2019 incident also involving sparks from a power tool.
All the fires so far, including the most recent, are believed to be accidental.
“All the prior fires were determined to be caused by peripheral circumstances and not due to the operational functionality of the mobile ranges,” department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said. “The Marina del Rey incident was due to inappropriate use of the mobile range and the other two fires were caused by contractors doing maintenance to the interior.”
The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) expressed its concerns and commitment to supporting injured deputies and their families following the incident.
“In all situations where a department member or a member of the public is injured or killed in law enforcement operations or training, ALADS will insist on a full investigation,” said Thomas Ferguson, vice president of ALADS.
The recent fires have also prompted other nearby sheriff’s departments, including Orange County, to halt the use of their mobile pistol ranges, even though they had not experienced any issues with the facilities.
Ensuring deputy training requirements are met amid the suspension of mobile range use may pose a challenge for these departments, as officers must undergo qualification testing four times a year.
While the investigations into the causes of these fires are ongoing, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is exploring alternative options for personnel to complete their firearms qualifications safely.