As Arizona Fire Rages, So Does Rumor on Its Origin

As Arizona Fire Rages, So Does Rumor on Its Origin

01 June 2011

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USA — PORTAL, Ariz. — It is a dramatic tale: that illegal immigrants being pursued by the Border Patrol started one of the nation’s largest wildfires, which has burned up more than 70,000 acres of national forest along Arizona’s border with Mexico since it began almost four weeks ago. But the authorities say that despite the tale’s being repeated often by some residents of the rugged countryside here, they do not know for sure if it is true.

“Sometimes you can find the true cause and other times you can’t,” said Bill Edwards, the lead ranger at the Coronado National Forest, who told residents at a community meeting on Tuesday night that the so-called Horseshoe 2 Fire was caused by humans but that investigators had not determined who caused it. “Everything else is speculation.”

Border security is such a dominant issue in Arizona that it pops up in many contexts, wildfires included. Because fires surge across the border, from Mexico to the United States and vice versa, fighting them presents added logistical challenges in this part of the country. Already this year, a particularly fierce one for fires, dozens of United States Forest Service firefighters have crossed into Mexico with special clearances to try to control fires before they reach the United States.

The Horseshoe 2 fire began on May 8 in Horseshoe Canyon, well north of the border, but many residents still link the blaze directly to Mexico. They point out that most border crossings occur at night, when it is cold in the mountains and the migrants are likely to start fires for warmth. With the high winds, low humidity and extremely dry conditions in the forest right now, the likelihood of a campfire getting out of control is especially great.

The story of how it started, so vivid in some accounts that it sounds as if witnesses were peering through the brush as matches were thrown, comes up often in conversations here and was repeated in an open letter that ranchers wrote to President Obama recently, criticizing him as not adequately securing the border.

“You hear people talk about it like they were there,” said Helen Snyder, a retired biologist who settled here 25 years ago. “Some of them even say that the illegal immigrants that started the fire were being pursued by the Border Patrol and that they set the fire maliciously to get away. Now wouldn’t the Border Patrol have called in the fire?”

A Border Patrol spokeswoman referred questions about how the fire started to the Forest Service, which said that lightning had been ruled out but that the investigation was continuing.

“We have trained investigators who are trying to determine how it started,” said Dugger Hughes, the incident commander for the fire, who is based just across the Arizona state line in Rodeo, N.M. “It’s like any arson investigation. They look at burn patterns and they work it back to a tight spot to determine where it began.”

That spot is now marked on Forest Service maps with a red X, with shaded areas representing burnt forest extending in all directions. The fire is now 75 percent contained, firefighters said Wednesday, as smoke from controlled burns billowed up into the clouds.

Mr. Hughes acknowledged that relatively few suspects were located in wildfire investigations, but said that when they were found, they faced criminal and civil penalties, including the cost of the firefighting operation, which in the case of the Horseshoe 2 Fire exceeds $20 million.

“We know it was man-caused, and it probably started in a campfire,” Mr. Hughes said. “Do we have a suspect? No. And we can’t say it was an immigrant either.”

But some are saying just that.

“Who set the fire?” asked Ed Ashurst, an area rancher who is convinced that he knows. “It’s obvious. There’s a few people in America who don’t think man walked on the moon in 1969. To say that illegal aliens didn’t set the fire is like saying that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon.”

Mr. Ashurst acknowledges that his case is circumstantial. “Did anyone see the aliens drop a match or a cigarette? No. But we all know who started this. Who else would be up there?”

The Coronado National Forest, despite its thick forest cover and high altitudes, is in fact a major smuggling route for both drugs and migrants. Firefighters say they have even encountered illegal immigrants crossing the area as it is burning. Border Patrol officers continue to patrol there, using all-terrain vehicles and stopping cars in search of smugglers.

But none of that proves who ignited the fire.

Mr. Edwards, the ranger, cited four other southern Arizona fires, all of them in known smuggling areas, that were found to have been caused by American citizens. One was caused by a rancher whose welding created a spark that ignited the dry underbrush, he said. Another was found to have been caused by target shooters. In two cases, he said, military aircraft engaged in training exercises set off fires.

“The automatic assumption is that it was an illegal immigrant,” Mr. Edwards said, acknowledging that migrants have been found to have caused wildfires by setting campfires to stay warm.

Last year, the Coronado National Forest was singed by a fire, called Horseshoe 1, that began just north of the spot where the current fire started. It, too, was deemed as caused by humans but no suspect was ever found. Some residents, though, are sure they know who set it.

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