Firefighters say the presence of illegal immigrants in border areas and fear for their safety keeps them from utilizing their full arsenal for stopping wildfires in the Arizona border region, according to a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO)report.
Wildfires can come from both natural and human causes, but human-caused fires are of particular concern in Arizona. The GAO was asked to examine the extent that people crossing the border illegally were the cause of wildfires and how the presence of travelers in those areas impacted fire suppression activities. The GAO interviewed officials from several agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Interagency Fire Center.
The GAO found that there were 422 human-caused wildfires in the Arizona border region from 2006 to 2010. Of the 422 fires, only 77 were investigated. Illegal border crossers accounted for 30 of those fires, according to investigators.
All 30 of the fires were found within 40 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico – some along known smuggling routes. In many cases investigators found discarded bottles or food with Spanish labels, evidence they say points to illegal border crossers. Additionally, a GAO review of 1,123 incident reports included 57 comments by firefighters who suspected fires were started by illegal border crossers.
Officials expressed concern for both the safety of their firefighters and for people crossing the border in these areas because of fire suppression techniques and delays caused by unexpected encounters.
While the Horseshoe Two fire burned 223,000 acres in June, evidence showed that drug traffickers continued using smuggling routes in the area, according to one report. There are no documented cases of firefighters encountering smugglers, but agencies told the GAO that they worried violence could result if firefighters did encounter armed smugglers while fighting fires in remote areas.
Officials also worry that illegal border crossers could be killed or injured when firefighters start backfires to control wildfires. Firefighters will often have Customs and Border Protection (CBP) check an area first before starting backfires, but the “additional step can increase the resources and time needed to suppress the fire.”
They’ve also reduced nighttime firefighting activities because of the “perceived threat to firefighters’ safety.” One Forest Service official told the GAO that firefighters were unable to set up overnight camp on the first day of a fire in 2009 because no law enforcement was available to provide security.