PALOMINAS, Ariz (Reuters) - Two Arizona wildfires that have scorched a quarter-million acres combined and destroyed dozens of homes just north of the U.S.-Mexico border were probably started by Mexican smugglers, the Cochise County sheriff said on Tuesday.
The remarks by Sheriff Larry Dever are likely to add to the furor sparked by Arizona Senator John McCain when he suggested that illegal immigrants were to blame for some of the massive wildfires raging out of control in the state.
The latest of those, the so-called Monument Fire, erupted a week ago at the Coronado National Memorial and spread quickly into the adjacent national forest. It roared through the steep slopes and rugged canyons of the Huachuca Mountains before breaking out into ranch lands and populated areas over the weekend.
A separate blaze in southeastern Arizona known as the Horseshoe 2 Fire has blackened some 223,000 acres and destroyed or damaged nine dwellings since it began May 8, though it is now listed as 90 percent contained.
Cochise Sheriff Dever told reporters the Monument Fire was "man-caused" and started in an area near the border fence that is closed to visitors and known to law enforcement for "high-intensity, drug- and human-trafficking."
"It wasn't the rabbits or the rattle snakes that started this fire, it was human beings, and the only human beings believed to be occupying (the area) were smugglers," he said during a news conference.
Dever said traffickers intentionally light fires to use as signals, to keep themselves warm and as diversions "to keep ... law enforcement off their backs." He added that the Horseshoe 2 Fire was likely sparked in the same way.
Federal officials stressed, however, that origins of the Monument and Horseshoe 2 fires remains under investigation.
Any statements at this point about a cause "would be speculation," said John Morlock, acting National Park Service administrator for the Monument Fire.
He told Reuters that while the grounds of the Coronado Memorial where the Monument Fire began were closed to the public due to extreme fire danger at the time, a road that runs through that 4,700-acre park was open to traffic.
Dever's statements appeared to give credence to statements McCain made on Saturday citing "substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally."
The Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate made that comment at a news conference after paying a visit to the site of a third, larger blaze farther north in Arizona, the Wallow Fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
Some critics have accused McCain of trying to single out illegal immigrants as scapegoats before the cause of the fires had been officially determined.
But Dever told Reuters, "I wouldn't take issue with the senator at all. In fact, I would support absolutely what he is suggesting."
The Monument fire has gutted at least 62 homes and a number of businesses, and an estimated 11,000 people were forced to flee at the peak of the fire threat in an area southeast of the town of Sierra Vista, Arizona. About 27,000 acres have burned in all.
Diminished winds since Monday have helped firefighters make headway against the flames, and by Tuesday ground crews had managed to carve containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter. But much of the Monument Fire continues to burn in remote terrain inaccessible to ground crews.
Federal fire authorities have said they suspect that an unattended campfire touched off the Wallow Fire, which has burned over 800 square miles and ranks as the largest ever in Arizona. Two "persons of interest" have been questioned by investigators, but they have not been identified, and no charges have been filed.
In response to McCain's remarks, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman was quoted by ABC News as saying there was no evidence to suggest illegal immigrants were to blame,
McCain has stood by his statement, saying he was speaking generally about "some" of the Arizona fires, not the Wallow Fire specifically.
On Monday, McCain, fellow Arizona Senator Jon Kyl and two Arizona congressmen, U.S. Representatives Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar, issued a joint statement saying that a Forest Service official who briefed them during their Wallow Fire visit told them that "some wildfires in Arizona are regrettably caused by drug smugglers and illegal immigrants."