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McCain touts report that pins some wildfires on border crossers

By Alexis Bergelt
Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – A new Government Accountability Office report says that 30 wildfires near the Arizona-Mexico border between 2006 and 2010 could be traced back to illegal border crossers.

The report was seized on by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who came under fire this summer for saying that immigrants caused some of the state’s wildfires.

This Government Accountability Office map identifies 30 wildfires within 100 miles of the Mexico border that investigators believe were caused by illegal border crossers between 2006 and 2010. (Map courtesy the Government Accountability Office)

“This independent GAO study again confirms what U.S. Forest Service and local officials in Arizona have long known: That some of the fires along the Arizona-Mexico border are caused by people crossing over the border illegally,” McCain said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

He said during a tour of areas scorched by the historic Wallow fires this summer that one solution to the problem would be a secure border, sparking sharp criticism.

“I hope this is a lesson to the activists and public officials that would prefer to engage in partisan character attacks rather than help focus the discussion on the vital need (to) secure our southern border,” said McCain, who released the report.

But the lesson for one critic was that McCain was engaging in damage control by releasing the report.

State Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, pointed to the fact that the 30 fires were just a fraction of the 2,467 the GAO studied.

“He is doing whatever he can to justify his comment and he just looks foolish because only 1 percent of the fires are caused by undocumented immigrants,” Gallardo said.

Gallardo said the majority of the fires were caused by reckless campers, not border crossers.

“I call on Sen. McCain to apologize to Latino voters in Arizona for using one of the worst disasters in our state’s history as an opportunity to race-bait,” said Gallardo.

McCain and Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in 2010 asked the GAO to study Arizona fires within 100 miles of the Mexican border.

The GAO studied 2,467 fires in that region between 2006 and 2010. It found that 86 percent of the land burned could be traced back to human-caused fires ranging in size from one acre to hundreds of thousands of acres.

Of the 422 fires that burned more than one acre of federal or tribal land, officials probed the causes of only 77, despite federal rules requiring investigations of all blazes. Of those 77, investigators said 30 were caused by border crossers.

The report said the federal government spent $33 million and the state spent another $2 million fighting manmade fires along the border over the four years.

The study did not include this year’s historic Horseshoe Two and Monument fires. The Horseshoe Two fire burned nearly 233,000 acres in May and June and the Monument fire burned more than 333,000 acres in June and July, according to the report.

The report said that in addition to causing some fires, immigrants also limit the ability of firefighters to battle blazes in border areas, for fear of being attacked or of inadvertently hurting an immigrant.

Firefighters have had to wait for law enforcement protection before heading to a blaze, the report said. Because there are no criteria for deciding when police are needed, law enforcement resources are often wasted, in addition to time wasted by firefighters.

The GAO recommended that agencies abandon the current requirement that all fires be investigated but instead develop strategies for selecting which fires to look into. Likewise, it said the agencies should have standards that help determine when a police escort is needed.

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