GAO Report: Illegal Aliens Start Forest Fires

By Jon Feere, November 26, 2011

Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain stated a fact – namely, that open borders lead to illegal aliens starting forest fires – and the usual suspects responded with the usual indignation. A new GAO report confirms that McCain was indeed correct.

At a press conference in June, McCain said: "There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally. The answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border."

ABC News claimed that McCain set off a "firestorm." Amnesty groups said the factual comment amounted to "fanning the flames of intolerance." La Raza board chairman Daniel Ortega said that McCain "owes it to us to not spread fear and hate." Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy reasoned, "With the lack of evidence, he might as well also blame aliens from outer space for the fires."

A McCain staffer responded: "The facts are clear. For years, federal, state and local officials have stated that smugglers and illegal immigrants have caused fires on our southern border."

McCain released a joint statement with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.):

"During our tour of the damaged areas caused by the Wallow Fire on Saturday, we were briefed by senior Forest Service officials, one of whom informed us that some wildfires in Arizona (across our southern border) are regrettably caused by drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. This statement is consistent with what we've been hearing for years, as well as testimony by the Forest Service and media reports dating back as far as 2006.

"While Arizonans continue to face the enormous challenges related to these wildfires, it's unfortunate that some are inserting their political agenda into this tragedy."

McCain's office also pointed to the following information:

"[T]he great majority, if not all the fires, on the Coronado National Forest (this year) have been human-caused. Causes of fires include ricocheting bullets, campfires, welding equipment and possibly ignition by smugglers or illegal immigrants." – Jim Upchurch, Forest Supervisor, Coronado National Forest, Arizona Daily Star, June 7, 2011

"Lightning cannot be blamed for the fires this year, [Coronado National Forest acting fire management officer Kristy] Lund said. Fires can be caused by careless campers and hikers, by ricocheting bullets, trailer chains that drag on the ground and send up sparks or driving on a flat tire and the rim lights sparks as it hits the road. And some can be caused by illegal border crossers." – Sierra Vista (Ariz.) Herald, June 7, 2011

"Large numbers of warming and cooking fires built and abandoned by cross-border violators have caused wildfires that have destroyed valuable natural and cultural resources. The wildfires also pose a threat to visitors, residents and firefighters as well as to the cross-border violators in the area. Agencies have documented that some cross-border violators also will intentionally set diversion or rescue fires, using uncontrolled wildfires to divert law enforcement from their illegal activities. Armed smugglers have walked through the middle of active firefighting operations. The Coronado National Forest must now send armed officers to clear wildland fire areas or provide security for firefighters. Ensuring wildland fire areas are cleared of people is challenging as cross-border violators often hide from firefighters. Agents of the Border Patrol have been used to help in these efforts. However, the potential for causing the death of cross-border violators during prescribed fires or fire suppression operations remains a serious liability and concern for us." – U.S. Forest Service Testimony to Congress, June 15, 2006

"A fire that blackened nearly 900 acres in San Diego County was caused by illegal immigrants who were apparently lost and set off a signal fire." – Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2010

The new GAO report confirms, once again, that illegal aliens are partially to blame for forest fires along the Arizona border region, causing nearly 40 percent of the fires that were investigated. Among the findings:

  • From 2006 through 2010, at least 2,467 wildland fires occurred in the Arizona border region, about 86 percent of which were caused by human activity.
  • About 63 percent or 1,553 of the 2,467 fires were ignited on federally managed land or tribal land.
  • Human-caused fires that burned 10 or more acres had a number of economic and environmental impacts on the Arizona border region, including (1) over $35 million in fire suppression costs by federal and state agencies, (2) destruction of property, (3) impacts on ranching operations, and (4) impacts on tourism. Similarly, these fires had several environmental impacts, such as the expansion of nonnative plant species, degraded endangered species habitat, and soil erosion. However, the full economic and environmental impacts cannot be determined because complete information about these impacts is not available.
  • Of the 422 human-caused wildland fires that occurred on Forest Service, Interior, or tribal lands and burned at least 1 acre from 2006 through 2010, only 77 were investigated. Of the investigations conducted, 30 identified illegal border crossers as a suspected source of ignition.
  • The presence of illegal border crossers has complicated fire suppression activities in the Arizona border region. 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 agencies have taken some steps to mitigate the risks to firefighters by, for example, using law enforcement to provide security.

The fires are not all accidental, and the GAO points to a report from 2010. That report found that illegal aliens often set fires as a means to divert U.S. law enforcement away from certain smuggling routes. Specifically, that report pointed out the following:

Refuge Manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge testified that illegal border crossers had disturbed wildlife and created more than 1,300 miles of illegal trails, causing the loss of vegetation and severe erosion. He also estimated that each year illegal border crossers leave more than 500 tons of trash and more than 100 abandoned vehicles on the refuge. Further, officials at several units we visited reported that illegal border crossers have started wildland fires, either by accident (e.g., from a cooking fire that escaped) or on purpose (e.g., to divert law enforcement resources away from certain areas).

As a side note, it should be remembered that the Arizona Republic reported in 2003 that an al Qaeda detainee claimed that forest fires were going to be used as a means of terrorism.

So it's settled: Illegal aliens are to blame for some forest fires. Some also kill Americans, most engage in ID theft, some are spreading gang activity, while others risk lives while driving drunk.

All of this could be avoided through a serious commitment to immigration law enforcement.