FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.—A study by Congress' investigative arm 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."
McCain and fellow Republicans framed the debate over his statements as a distraction.
"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 Tuesday.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office report was released by McCain's office at the July 2010 request of the senator and fellow Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
It makes no mention of whether anyone was prosecuted for starting the fires because that wasn't in the scope of the report.
Former state Rep. John Loredo, D-Phoenix, said Tuesday that the GAO 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."
The GAO gathered information for the study, which included fires within 100 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico, from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and interviewed federal, state and tribal officials along the state's 370-mile border.
Nearly 2,500 wildfires occurred in the Arizona border region from 2006 to 2010, but the GAO studied only those that were human-caused, burned more than 1 acre and those for which investigative reports were available. Of the 422 wildfires that topped an acre, federal fire investigators probed 77, or 18 percent.
The GAO report doesn't cover wildfires in 2011 because investigative reports were not yet complete when the GAO was conducting its study.
The GAO 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 GAO report said.
Reports on the other 15 wildfires don't give a reason for the start of the fire, but the GAO said a couple of them mention that the areas of ignition are known for drug smuggling.
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.
McCain clarified that he wasn't referring to the 835-acre Wallow fire, the largest wildfire in state history that destroyed 32 homes, four rental cabins and forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate earlier this year. Two cousins from southern Arizona have been charged with starting the blaze.
The smaller Horseshoe Two fire atop the Chiricahua mountains burned 348 square miles and destroyed nine homes. That fire investigation report indicates that drug smugglers continued to use the area while the blaze was under suppression, according to the GAO. Another wildfire burning at the time, the 47-square-mile Monument fire destroyed 57 homes.
The GAO also looked at fire incident reports for 1,123 wildfires in the area over the five-year period and found that 57 of them include firefighters' suspicions that illegal border crossers were to blame for ignition. Those reports are not formal investigations into the fire's origin.
The GAO said federal officials should come up with a strategy on which fires to investigate and use that to guide fire prevention activities and resources. Without a plan that includes selecting and prioritizing wildfire investigations, the frequency in which the blazes are caused by illegal border crossers remains unknown, the report said.
Federal officials cited a lack of available trained investigators to look into human-caused wildfires, according to the GAO report. Both the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said providing security for firefighters or their equipment often ranks higher on the priority list.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell agreed with the report's observations and recommendations. He said an interagency group is working on standardized policy for wildfire investigations.
The GAO also looked at how fire suppression has been impacted by the presence of illegal border crossers. The Forest Service issued a report in 2006 saying the border region could be dangerous for firefighters because of potential encounters with drug smugglers, high-speed pursuits, biological hazards and illegal border crossers seeking food, water or rescue. The GAO said federal officials it interviewed did not identify any specific threats or assaults.
But the federal officials said firefighting efforts sometimes are hampered over concerns about border crossers in the area.
Felicia Fonseca can be reached at http://twitter.com/FonsecaAP