FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - 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 this year that fires are sometimes caused by illegal border crossers, but he did not 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 Tuesday 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 and offers no hard evidence that immigrants were responsible.
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 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.