Capitol Media Services

Illegal border crossers were likely responsible for nearly 40 percent of wildfires on federal land in Southern Arizona - at least where the cause was investigated - according to a new report.

The study by the General Accounting Office also found that efforts to fight blazes are sometimes delayed while firefighters wait for law enforcement officers to protect them against armed smugglers. The report said that delay "may allow fires to grow larger and more damaging."

It also found that federal agencies investigated fewer than one out of every five fires on federal land during that five-year study. That was based primarily on whether investigators were available, as opposed to the size or location of the fires.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who asked for the report, said he reads that lack of investigations to mean that the actual percentage of fires linked to border crossers may be higher.

But state Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, argued there's less in the report than meets the eye.

He pointed out that there were close to 2,500 wildland fires in the region - within 100 miles of the border - during that five-year period. That includes not only those on federal land, but also on other property.

Gallardo said if all of those had been investigated it might just as easily be determined that the vast majority were caused by Arizona citizens, whether on purpose or due to carelessness.

He accused McCain of "race-baiting'' and "trying to demonize'' the Hispanic community.

But McCain press aide Brian Rogers said it is Gallardo trying to distort the numbers by using the larger figure of all fires anywhere in the area. Rogers said the only valid comparison is the one finding 30 out of 77 fires actually investigated where there was documented evidence that illegal border crossers are a suspected cause.

"GAO's findings are consistent with what U.S. Forest Service and local officials have long known: that some of the fires are started by illegal border crossers," Rogers said.

"The percentage may be lower or higher than in the sample," he acknowledged. "But the fact remains that it's an issue a leader like Sen. McCain should be able to discuss without having his character attacked by pathetic politicians like state Sen. Gallardo."

The report, McCain's conclusions and Gallardo's response echo the political spat that first erupted earlier this summer when McCain was talking about this year's fires.

"There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally," McCain said at the time. "The answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border."

That brought rebukes from some civil rights leaders who said the senator had absolutely nothing on which to base his conclusions.

This new report does nothing to either support or refute the senator's contention, as it does not include anything about the cause of any 2011 incidents. The two major fires this year were the Horseshoe Two and Monument fires.

But McCain's prepared comments, released with the study, suggest he believed he was vindicated.

"I hope this report is a lesson to the activists and public officials that would prefer to engage in partisan character attacks rather than help focus the discussions on the vital need to secure our southern border," he said.

The authors of the GAO report acknowledged the limits of what they can conclude.

On one hand, they were able to say that most of the fires within 100 miles of the border were caused by human activity, burned less than one acre each, and were ignited on federal or tribal lands.

Of the total of 2,467 fires, the GAO examined 422 on federal or tribal lands that burned at least one acre. And of that, just 77 were actually investigated by fire officials.

According to the GAO report, of the 30 linked to border crossers, half of those are attributed to efforts to signal for help, provide warmth or cook food. That included the 2006 Black Mesa Fire, which burned about 170 acres south of Arivaca.

As investigators describe that incident, about 20 people were crossing into the country illegally when one was injured.

"The group continued without the injured person, but first started a fire to keep animals away and to attract attention in the hope that someone would rescue the injured person," the report says.

Similarly, the 2009 Bear Fire in the Miller Peak area of the Huachuca Mountains burned 15 acres. There, investigators said they found "indicators" of the source, including discarded bottles and food wrappers with Spanish language labels. The area is used by illegal border crossers and is adjacent to heavily used smuggling trails.

But the report also found that 13 of the wildland fires investigated were started by campfires by residents, with other fires linked to recreational shootings, welding accidents, sparks from all-terrain vehicles and fireworks.

The report says that the small percentage of fires actually investigated impacts more than just questions of their cause.

"Without more information on the specific causes of these fires, the (federal) agencies lack key data that could help them target their fire prevention efforts," the report says.

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