- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Illegal immigrants started nearly 40 percent of human-ignited wildfires along the border between Arizona and Mexico between 2006 and 2010, according to a government report that gives new credence to claims Arizona lawmakers made earlier this year during catastrophic blazes in the Southwest.

That number may even be understated — the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said federal land agencies often violate their own policies by not trying to investigate the origins of human-caused fires. Of the 422 human-caused fires, just 77 were investigated, and of those 30 were found to have been ignited by people illegally crossing the border.

Illegal immigration also makes battling the fires harder as firefighters worry more about their own safety and have to curb some tactics such as backfires for fear of harming illegal immigrants who may still be in the area, investigators for the congressional watchdog agency said in Tuesday’s report.

“According to agency officials, the presence of illegal border-crossers has increased concerns about firefighter safety and, in some instances, has required firefighters to change or limit the tactics they use in suppressing fires. For example, the presence of illegal border-crossers has limited firefighting activities at night and complicated the use of aerial firefighting methods,” the agency said in a 60-page report.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, had requested the report last year. The findings appear to back up his claims that illegal immigrants were responsible for starting at least some of the blazes that burned in Arizona and New Mexico earlier this year.

“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 discussion on the vital need secure our southern border,” Mr. McCain said.

Federal agencies have struggled for years to balance their land-management duties with the pressures of illegal immigration along the border.

Some public lands managers along the U.S.-Mexico border have told The Washington Times they spend as much as half of their annual budgets dealing with the effects of illegal immigration, from picking up trash and hauling out abandoned smuggling vehicles to rehabilitating fragile environmental areas used by illegal crossers.

The GAO, in its report, said historic locations such as the Fort Bowie National Historic Site have “been compromised” by illegal crossers leaving trash and even human waste there.

Illegal immigrants start fires to cook food, provide warmth or even to attract attention. A 2006 fire that burned about 170 acres was started by an illegal immigrant who got hurt and wanted to be rescued.

Earlier this year Mr. McCain came under fire for saying major blazes along the U.S.-Mexico border may have been started by illegal immigrants.

Those fires happened in 2011, which was outside of the period the GAO examined, but Mr. McCain said the report’s findings show illegal immigration is a real issue in border fires.

And at the time of the fires this year, a contract firefighter who battled one of the blazes told The Washington Times that firefighters blamed an illegal immigrant and said one was questioned by authorities. Calls to federal land agencies at the time seeking comment were not returned.

In their official response to the GAO findings, the agencies agreed that they could do better to coordinate their responses. Only the U.S. Forest Service has an official guide for firefighting in the border region, but it said the agencies are all trying to come up with an interagency protocol.

The agencies also told the GAO they do not have enough trained fire investigators to look into the exact cause of each blaze.

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