A study by Congress’ investigative arm has found that investigators linked 30 fires that erupted in a five-year period in a border region of the southwestern state of Arizona to people who crossed into the U.S. illegally.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Tuesday the findings support his statements earlier this year that fires are sometimes caused by illegal border crossers. An opponent dismissed the new findings as meaningless.
McCain at the time did not immediately specify which fires he was referring to as blazes scorched the southern and eastern parts of the state, and the statements quickly drew fire from activists who criticized him for “scapegoating.”
McCain and fellow Republicans framed the debate over his statements as a distraction.
“I hope this report is a lesson to the activists and public officials that would prefer to engage in partisan character attacks rather than focus the discussion on the vital need to secure our southern border,” he said.
The report makes no mention of whether anyone was prosecuted for starting the fires.
Former state Rep. John Loredo said Tuesday the federal Government Accountability Office report shows that few of the wildfires are started by immigrants and questioned why McCain didn’t instead focus on how the majority of human-caused fires start.
“He knows what he did was wrong,” Loredo said. “He knows he shouldn’t have race-baited the issue. He’s continuously trying to find some type of evidence that supports his statement, and if anything, this report shoots his statement down in flames.”
The GAO report was released by McCain’s office at the July 2010 request of the senator and fellow Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
The GAO gathered information for the study, which included fires within 100 miles (161 kilometers) of Arizona’s border with Mexico, from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and interviewed federal, state and tribal officials along the state’s 370-mile (595 kilometer) border.
Nearly 2,500 wildfires occurred in the Arizona border region from 2006 to 2010, but the GAO studied only those that were human-caused, burned more than 1 acre (.4 hectare) and those for which investigative reports were available. Of the 422 wildfires that topped an acre, federal fire investigators probed 77, or 18 percent.
The GAO report doesn’t cover wildfires in 2011 because investigative reports were not yet complete when the GAO was conducting its study.
The GAO found that 30 of the probed wildfires were linked to illegal border crossers primarily in southeastern Arizona based on what was written in investigative reports. Fifteen were thought to be a signal for help, provide warmth or cook food. An investigative report on the 2009 Bear fire backed up that suspicion by noting the discovery of discarded bottles and food wrappers with Spanish language labels near a campfire. It also noted that the area is frequented by illegal border crossers and is adjacent to a heavily used smuggling trail, the GAO report said.
Reports on the other 15 wildfires don’t give a reason for the start of the fire, but the GAO said a couple of them mention that the areas of ignition are known for drug smuggling.
McCain said he had been briefed on the link between wildfires and immigrants before he made his statements. Forest Service Assistant Deputy Chief Jim Pena later told a congressional panel that illegal immigrants were responsible for starting a handful of wildfires in southern Arizona’s Coronado National Forest from 2002 to 2011.
McCain clarified that he wasn’t referring to the 835-acre (380-hectare) Wallow fire, the largest wildfire in state history that destroyed 32 homes, four rental cabins and forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate earlier this year. Two cousins from southern Arizona have been charged with starting the blaze.
The smaller Horseshoe Two fire atop the Chiricahua mountains burned 348 square miles (900 sq. kilometers) and destroyed nine homes. That fire investigation report indicates that drug smugglers continued to use the area while the blaze was under suppression, according to the GAO.
The GAO also looked at fire incident reports for 1,123 wildfires in the area over the five-year period and found that 57 of them include firefighters’ suspicions that illegal border crossers were to blame for ignition. Those reports are not formal investigations into the fire’s origin.