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Old ammo poses risk

The last live piece of ammunition at the former Camp Beale hasn’t been fired in almost 45 years.

And yet, a generation later, people living in the Big Oak Valley and near the Spenceville Wildlife Refuge areas still stumble across unexploded ordnance and ammunition dating back to World War I.

The affected areas around the former Camp Beale now comprise more than 64,000 acres of undeveloped land and homes that straddle parts of Nevada and Yuba counties. The Department of Defense purchased the area in 1942 and began selling the parcels back to the public in 1959.



While it’s rare that residents find unexploded ordnance in the area, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is concerned that there are still pockets of land where grenades and bombs exist.

The Corps of Engineers has been asked by the Department of Defense to conduct an ordnance sweep of the two-county area immediately east of Beale Air Force Base.




The sweep may take several years, said Arthur Smith, chief ordnance and explosives safety manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, who spent the past week educating some of tomorrow’s homeowners about the dangers of extracting rusty bullets and grenades from the ground.

Over the next few weeks, Smith and the Corps of Engineers will be visiting schools near Lake Wildwood, Penn Valley and Wheatland with a simple message to children curious about digging up antiquated weaponry.

That message, Smith told an audience of elementary school children at Williams Ranch School, is clear: Recognize the ammunition, retreat, and report whatever you find to the proper authorities.

Smith said mortar rounds have been found in Big Oak Valley, and grenades and mortar shells have also been located.

At one point, Camp Beale was home to the 13th Armored Division, the only unit of its kind to be entirely trained in California.

Smith presented a slide show depicting some of the more dangerous pieces of ammunition that could be found in the area.

“Would you touch anything like this?” Smith asked, pointing to a 12-inch, 75mm armor-piercing mortar.

“No!” the children screamed.

With developments planned in the area of the former Camp Beale, the Corps of Engineers is conducting seminars with parents and teachers at Pleasant Valley, Ready Springs, Pleasant Ridge and Wheatland school districts, outlining the plan for sweeping the area for weapons and instructing residents on the safety measures needed when finding ordnance.

While Williams Ranch School isn’t on former Camp Beale property, the attendance area is.

Williams Ranch Principal Sam Schug said it probably wouldn’t be unusual to find buried ordnance nearby, though he hasn’t received any complaints.

Until the sweep is conducted, Smith said there’s no way to know how much ordnance is buried in the ground.

Financing for the sweep depends on the Department of Defense, Smith said.

“I would say the risk is low in some areas and medium in others,” Smith said, adding the highest levels of training activity occurred in the Camp Far West area of Nevada County, in the extreme western portion of the county.

The Corps of Engineers plans an inventory of wildlife in conjunction with the sweep, which could take as long as 15 years.

“It’s all dependent on when we’re given money for this project,” Smith said.


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