Firefighters working with the forest service are told not to use their radios when they encounter border crossers because of fear that the travelers may think they are being reported and react violently, one official told the GAO. And in some areas, radios may not be of much use anyway because “illegal border crossers may use the same radio frequencies as firefighters, causing interference and limiting their ability to safely coordinate fire suppression activities,” according to Federal and tribal officials.
Both government agencies and the GAO say there are shortfalls in getting accurate numbers on the impact of border crossers on wildfires. Investigations were based on the availability of fire investigators rather than the size or locations of fires.
“The total number of fires ignited by illegal border crossers on federal lands in the Arizona border region is not fully known, in part because federal land management agencies have not conducted investigations of all human-caused wildland fires that occurred on these lands, as called for by agency policy,” the reported concluded.
The policy, the Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations, requires in-depth investigations of any fires determined to be caused by humans. Forest Service officials told the GAO that they lacked trained fire personnel to investigate the fires in-depth.
At a press conference addressing Arizona’s wildfires in June, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) raised eyebrows when he suggested that illegal immigrants were the cause of Arizona’s wildfires. McCain said, after being briefed by Forest Service officials, that many fires were caused by travelers trying to keep warm, signal others, or distract law enforcement. Critics accused McCain of trying to use the wildfires to push his own immigration agenda. McCain said that as far back as 2006 Forest Service officials had warned of cooking and warming fires being set by illegal border crossers.
“Armed smugglers have walked through the middle of active firefighting operations… [They] must now send armed officers to clear wildland fires areas or provide security for firefighters,” he told ABC News, referring to the Horseshoe Two fire.
“The agencies have taken some steps to mitigate the risks to firefighters by, for example, using law enforcement to provide security,” the GAO report confirmed. “However, none of the agencies have developed or implemented a risk-based approach for addressing these challenges.”
photo by USFWS-Souteast/flickr