SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. – Sen. John McCain on Monday defended a statement he made over the weekend that there was “substantial evidence” border crossers were partly responsible for wildfires in the state. Two other Arizona Republicans stood with him. But activists swiftly jumped on his statement as “scapegoating.”
Authorities say the three major blazes in Arizona were started by humans, but they don’t know any more details.
The debate raged as authorities went through neighborhoods Monday to examine damage from a wildfire that burned into a heavily-populated area near the U.S.-Mexico border.
About 10,000 people remained evacuated on the outskirts of Sierra Vista about 15 miles north of the border where the so-called Monument fire swept off a mountain and destroyed 14 homes and four businesses Sunday.
The blaze, which started about a week ago, was about 27 percent contained as of Monday. The fire has destroyed 58 homes and burned more than 40 square miles.
Along the border with New Mexico, the biggest blaze in state history has charred an area five times that size, but hasn’t done as much damage.
Despite burning more than 800 square miles since late May, the Wallow fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. The fire is about 51 percent contained.
As for the third major fire in Arizona, the blaze in the far southeastern part of was 80 percent contained after charring more than 330 square miles since it started May 8. The Horseshoe Two fire has destroyed 23 structures.
Officials say all three blazes are the result of human activity. Whether illegal immigrants were involved – as has sometimes been the case – is unknown.
The issue heated up over the weekend when McCain told media: “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.”
The statement brought a quick reaction from activists.
“It’s his constant refrain for everything that ails mankind,” said Roberto Reveles, founding president of Somos America, an Arizona-based immigration rights group.
“It just seems like we have an epidemic of ‘blame it all on the illegal aliens, blame it all on the Mexicans.’ It’s amazing that the public doesn’t rebel against this type of scapegoating.”
McCain and fellow Arizona Republicans Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. Paul Gosar released a joint statement Monday defending McCain, saying that they had been told that some fires in the southern part of the state are started by illegal immigrants.
They did not specify to which fires they were referring but framed the debate as a distraction.
“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,” their statement said.
Arizona Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva disagreed with that depiction.
“They served this, they pandered it, and now (they) say that anybody who criticizes that inappropriate, unsubstantiated claim somehow has a political agenda. This is a tragedy of huge proportions for Arizona. Those of us who criticize it are only reacting to what they started.”