Arizona fires linked to immigrants - McCaine
Flagstaff - A study by the investigative arm of the US Congress shows investigators have linked 30 fires that erupted in a five-year period in Arizona's border region to people who crossed into the United States illegally - a finding Sen John McCain said backs up earlier statements he made about illegal immigrants and wildfires.
McCain said earlier this year that fires are sometimes caused by illegal border crossers, but he did not immediately specify to which fires he was referring as blazes scorched the southern and eastern parts of the state.
The statements quickly drew criticism from activists who jumped on him for "scapegoating".
"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," McCain said on Tuesday.
Nearly 2 500 wildfires occurred in the Arizona border region from 2006 to 2010, but the study only looked at those that were human-caused, burned more than 0.4ha and those for which investigative reports were available. Of the 422 wildfires that topped 0.4ha, federal fire investigators probed 77, or 18%.
The study 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 report said.
Focus on majority
Reports on the other 15 wildfires don't give a reason for the start of the fire, but the study said a couple of them mention that the areas of ignition are known for drug smuggling.
The US Government Accountability Office report was released by McCain's office.
Former state Rep John Loredo, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that the 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."
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.