An Arizona sheriff whose territory includes an 80-mile stretch of the U.S-Mexico border backed up Sen. John McCain’s assertion that illegal immigrants are often responsible for setting wildfires.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever went a step further to say Wednesday that he firmly believes illegal immigrants started the 42-square-mile Monument Fire burning outside of Sierra Vista, about 15 miles north of the border.
“There is no other logical assessment available — not fireworks, not campfires, not someone passing by in a vehicle. It was somebody on foot in a high-intensity foot traffic area,” said Dever, adding that the area where the fire started was remote and closed to visitors.
Dever is known as an advocate for tougher border enforcement and a political ally of McCain, a Republican. Last year, the sheriff appeared in an ad for McCain’s re-election campaign that showcased the senator’s get-tough approach to border security.
Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an immigrant rights group based in Tucson said Dever was trying to scapegoat illegal immigrants.
“Without there being actual reports or documents pointing fingers in any direction, it’s completely irresponsible for Sheriff Dever to make this statement, especially in a state so divided by immigration,” Allen said.
Coronado Forest spokeswoman Heidi Schewel declined to say whether investigators think the human-caused fire was started by illegal immigrants.
“We don’t speculate on causes until our investigation is complete,” Schewel said.
McCain has faced criticism from immigrant rights advocates for a statement he made after touring a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona last weekend saying there was “substantial evidence” border crossers were partly responsible for wildfires in the state.
McCain didn’t specify whether he thought the Monument Fire was started by illegal immigrants.
Dever said his belief that the Monument Fire was started by illegal immigrants was rooted in information he has received about the fire and in a history of border crossers setting fires in the area.
The sheriff said he heard that a Border Patrol agent was pursuing a group of illegal immigrants near where the fire began June 12. Dever said the Border Patrol agent didn’t see anyone light the fire, but he said the agent spotted the group in the area around the time the fire was started.
Border Patrol spokesman Eric Cantu said it’s possible there was an agent in the area around the time the fire was started, but that he can’t say for sure whether an agent was nearby without more information.
Dever said illegal border crossers set fires to keep warm at night or as a diversion for pursuing border agents. He also said smugglers set signal fires to guide their customers through the borderlands.