- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Illegal immigrants started nearly 40 percent of human-caused wildfires along the Arizona and Mexico border between 2006 and 2010, according to a new government report that backs up claims state lawmakers made during this year’s catastrophic blazes.

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

Illegal immigration also makes battling the fires harder as firefighters worry more about their own safety and curb some tactics, such as backfires, for fear of harming illegal immigrants who may still be in the area, GAO said.

“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.

Both the biggest human-caused fire in the survey, a 2009 blaze known as the Hog Fire, and the most expensive one, the 2010 Horseshoe Fire, were ignited by illegal immigrants.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, requested the report last year. The findings seem to back up a claim he made 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.

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 mitigating the effects of illegal immigration, ranging from hauling abandoned smuggling vehicles to rehabbing a fragile environment trampled 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 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 was criticized for saying major blazes along the U.S.-Mexico border may have been started by illegal immigrants.

Those fires happened this year, which was outside of the period GAO examined, but Mr. McCain said the report’s findings show illegal immigration is a real factor.

A contract firefighter who battled one of the blazes this year told The 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 GAO, the agencies agreed they could do better to coordinate responses. Only the Forest Service has an official guide for firefighting in the border region, but it said the agencies are trying to come up with an interagency protocol.

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

In the case of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the law enforcement officers trained to investigate fires were too busy providing security for the firefighters to conduct the investigations required by agency policy.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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