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McCain takes heat for wildfire comments

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on "The Early Show," Jan. 24, 2011.
CBS
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
CBS

Updated: 3:53 p.m. ET

Sen. John McCain is taking heat from civil rights organizations for comments he made over the weekend implying that illegal immigrants were responsible for the wildfires that have been plaguing Arizona for weeks.

"There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally" - and that "the answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border," McCain said at a press conference in Arizona on Saturday.

Illegal immigrants, McCain alleged, "have set fires because they want to signal others, they have set fires to keep warm, and they have set fires in order to divert law agents and agencies from them."

Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, said McCain's statements were "irresponsible" and that "he's getting as much traction as he can politically" by taking a hard-line approach on immigration.

"Right away he jumped in and started talking about persons coming across the border," Falcon told Hotsheet on Monday, arguing that it was "irresponsible to jump to those conclusions and make those statements before there was any evidence."

Randy Parraz, a civil rights activist who made an unsuccessful bid for McCain's Senate seat in 2010, accused the longtime senator of "fan[ning] the flames of intolerance" in Arizona.

"People are looking for someone to blame," he said, calling McCain's comments "careless and reckless."

"It's easier to fan the flames of intolerance, especially in Arizona," he said, but noted that McCain "should know better" than to make unsupported claims about the state's "most vulnerable populations."

Tom Berglund, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, told ABC News on Sunday that there was no evidence to support McCain's claims.

"Absolutely not, at this level," Berglund said Sunday. "There's no evidence that I'm aware, no evidence that's been public, indicating such a thing."

He said the Wallow Fire - the most expansive wildfire in Arizona state history - had been traced to an "escaped campfire," but that no suspect had been named despite conversations with two "subjects of interest."

A spokesman for McCain said on Monday that the senator had not been referring to the Wallow Fire, and that his comments reflected fires near the Arizona border.

"For years, federal, state and local officials have stated that smugglers and illegal immigrants have caused fires on our southern border, said McCain communications director Brooke Buchanan. "During the press conference on Saturday, Senator McCain was referring to fires on the Arizona/Mexico border, not the Wallow Fire."

According to Buchanan, McCain, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., have requested a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding the possible connection between wildfires and illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. The report has not yet been released.

Buchanan, however, pointed to several reports over the past several years indicating that undocumented immigrants may have been involved in some wildfires in the past, although most of the reports also include "ricocheting bullets, campfires, welding equipment" and other factors as among many possible causes.

In a joint statement Monday afternoon, McCain, along with Kyl, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.,and Paul Gosar R-Ariz., attributed the source of his claim to information from the U.S. Forest Service.

"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," the statement says. "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," it continues.