GAO: Illegals Suspected of Igniting at Least 30 Wildfires Near Arizona-Mexico Border Between 2006 and 2010

By Edwin Mora | November 23, 2011 | 2:25am EST

A firefighter sets a backburn to fight a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona on June 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

( – People crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are suspected to have been responsible for at least 30 wildfires in Arizona between 2006 and 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Based on our review of agency investigation reports, illegal border crossers were a suspected cause of ignition for 30 of the 77 [federally] investigated wildland fires, or about 39 percent,” the GAO reported in an audit released Tuesday.

Well over 1,000 acres were burned in the fires, which were all located within 40 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Five of the 30 wildland fires in which illegal border crossers were a suspected cause burned less than 10 acres each, 16 burned from 10 to 100 acres each, and 9 burned more than 100 acres each,” the report stated.

Investigation reports for 15 of the 30 wildfires did not cite the specific purpose for ignition while others “resulted from efforts to signal for help, provide warmth, or cook food.”

However, “a couple of investigation reports for these fires noted that the area of ignition is known for drug smuggling,” the audit said.

“For instance, the investigation report for the 2010 Horseshoe Fire, which burned about 3,400 acres, stated that evidence found during the investigation suggests that drug smugglers were in the area of ignition.”

The GAO also noted, as reported in an earlier audit, last December, that “illegal border crossers have been suspected of starting wildland fires either by accident – for example, from cooking fires that escape – or on purpose – for example, to divert law enforcement resources away from a particular area.”

The new report said federal land management agencies spent $33 million to suppress human-attributed fires between 2006-2010 in the Arizona border region, and the state of Arizona almost $2 million.

From 2006 through 2010, at least 2,467 wildland fires occurred in the Arizona border region, the GAO reported. Of these, 2,126 (about 86 percent) were human-caused, and 1,553 (about 63 percent) were ignited on federally managed or tribal land.

Out of 422 of the fires that burned one or more acres on federal or tribal lands in that area over that time period, federal land management agencies only investigated 77, the GAO noted – a situation attributed by the agencies’ officials to a shortage of trained fire investigators

As a result, the GAO concluded that “the frequency with which illegal border crossers have caused wildland fires on federal lands in the Arizona border region is not fully known.”

The report said that the presence of illegal border crossers in the Arizona border region has complicated fire suppression activities.

Federal agency officials had told the GAO that “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,” it said. “The agencies have taken some steps to mitigate the risks to firefighters by, for example, using law enforcement to provide security.

“However, none of the agencies have developed or implemented a risk-based approach for addressing these challenges. Consequently, law enforcement resources are routinely dispatched to all fires regardless of the risk, which may prevent the agencies from using their limited resources most efficiently.”

Approximately 51 percent of the land along the 370-mile long Arizona-Mexico border region is managed by the federal government.

“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 the border illegally,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who requested the GAO study in July 2010, said in a statement responding to the report.

“The report further found that firefighting activities have sometimes been delayed while waiting for law enforcement escorts as protection from armed smugglers, which could cause fires to grow larger and more damaging,” McCain said. “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.”

McCain’s office also noted that the report did not take into account the 2011 fire season, “the worst in Arizona history.”

Two fires – the Horseshoe Two and Monument fires – had together burned more than 250,000 acres near the Arizona-Mexico border, destroyed more than 60 homes and cost taxpayers at least $70 million in fire suppression costs, it said.

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