By Anna Consie
Cronkite News Service
PHOENIX – A day after two Arizona men were charged with starting the Wallow Fire, a Democratic state lawmaker accused U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of erroneously blaming the wildfire on illegal immigrants.
Joined at a news conference by several Latino community leaders, Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said Thursday that McCain should “man up” and apologize.
“Shame on him for making such a racist comment,” he said.
Gallardo took issue with a June 18 statement by McCain, who talked with reporters after touring the devastation caused by the Wallow Fire, one of three catastrophic fires to strike eastern and southeastern Arizona this year.
“There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally,” McCain was quoted as saying.
When some reporters noted that McCain’s quote didn’t refer specifically to the Wallow Fire, Gallardo said that by making the statement immediately after touring the area McCain was implying that the fire was started by illegal immigrants.
“We need to stop blaming illegal immigrants for everything that goes wrong in this state,” Gallardo said.
A spokesman from McCain’s office said in an email that the senator has said “time and time and time again” that he was not referring to the Wallow Fire. Instead, Brian Rogers said, McCain had received a briefing from the U.S. Forest Service stating that some fires along the Arizona-Mexico border had been started by illegal immigrants.
In a July testimony to a U.S. House subcommittee, Jim Pena, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System, said that 1 percent of the 457 human-caused fires in southeastern Arizona from 2002-2011 were determined to be caused by illegal immigrants.
On Wednesday, cousins David Malboeuf, 24, of Tucson and Caleb Malboeuf, 26, of Benson were charged with starting the Wallow Fire by leaving their campfire unattended.
The blaze burned more than 500,000 acres in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, destroying 32 homes, four commercial properties and dozens of outbuildings.
At the news conference, Daniel Ortega, board chair for the National Council of La Raza, a national advocacy group, said illegal immigrants have been a popular target for politicians.
“Over the last year, Hispanic immigrants, and, by association, Latino Americans in this state and this country have been the bogeymen,” he said. “This has to stop.”