GAO issues report on Arizona Border area fires

McCain, Tidwell, Harbour at Wallow fire
Sen. John McCain, Thomas Tidwell (Chief of the Forest Service), and Tom Harbour (Director of Fire and Aviation, USFS) at the Wallow fire, June 18, 2011. Photo by USFS.

On June 18 Senator John McCain flew with Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation for the USFS, and Thomas Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, to Arizona to be briefed on the Wallow fire. He met with reporters that day and started his own firestorm when he was quoted as saying:

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.

McCain received a great deal of criticism for his rather vague statement, some of which accused him of unfairly pointing the finger at “vulnerable populations”. It was not clear to which fires McCain was referring, but two cousins from southern Arizona were charged with starting the Wallow fire by leaving a campfire unattended. McCain may have been thinking of the Monument fire which started June 12 near the Arizona/Mexico border and, according to a well-publicized theory by Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, may have been caused by illegal border crossers. We checked today and the cause of the Monument fire is officially still “under investigation”, according to the Coronado National Forest.

It turns out that in 2010 McCain and three other senators, Lisa Murkokwski, John Barrasso, and Jon Kyl requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a study about wildfires in the Arizona border area. The 55-page report which was released today, covers:

  • The number, cause, size, and location of wildland fires from 2006 through 2010;
  • Economic and environmental effects of human-caused wildland fires burning 10 or more acres;
  • Extent to which illegal border crossers were the ignition source of wildland fires on federal lands; and
  • Ways in which the presence of illegal border crossers has affected fire suppression activities.

From the report, here are some numbers relating to Arizona border area fires. The GAO looked at data for fires that occurred from 2006 through 2010:

  • 2,467 fires were examined in the report
  • 2,126 or 86% of the fires were caused by humans
  • 1,364 fires burned less than one acre
  • 1,553 or 63% of the 2,467 fires started on federally managed or tribal land
  • $35 million, the suppression costs for the fires that burned more than 10 acres
  • ?… the number of fires ignited by illegal border crossers on federal lands is not known because not all fires were investigated
  • 422 human-caused wildland fires occurred on Forest Service, Interior, or tribal lands and burned at least 1 acre
  • 77 of the above 422 fires were investigated.
  • 30 (or 39%) of the above 77 investigated fires were identified as being caused by illegal border crossers
  • 57 additional fires were not formally investigated but were suspected (by individuals who completed fire reports) of being caused by illegal border crossers
  • 4% of the 2,216 human caused fires were identified by investigators or by individuals who completed fire reports as being caused by illegal border crossers

Below are three graphics from the GAO report, followed by Conclusions and Recommendations:


  • The presence of illegal border crossers has complicated fire suppression activities in the Arizona border region. According to agency officials, the presence of illegal border crossers has increased concerns about firefighter safety and, in some instances, has required firefighters to change or limit the tactics they use in suppressing fires. For example, the presence of illegal border crossers has limited firefighting activities at night and complicated the use of aerial firefighting methods. The agencies have taken some steps to mitigate the risks to firefighters by, for example, using law enforcement to provide security. However, none of the agencies have developed or implemented a risk-based approach for addressing these challenges. Consequently, law enforcement resources are routinely dispatched to all fires regardless of the risk, which may prevent the agencies from using their limited resources most efficiently. Moreover, while the Forest Service has developed a formal policy for addressing the risks to firefighters in the region, the other agencies have neither formally adopted this policy nor developed their own.
  • Gaps in information and inefficient deployment of limited law enforcement resources create operational challenges limiting the agencies’ ability to fully address the complications they face.
  • The agencies do not have in-depth information about the specific ignition sources of human-caused wildland fires in part because they have not conducted investigations for all human-caused fires—often because of limited resources—as called for by interagency policy.
  • However, the agencies have not developed a strategy for determining which fires to investigate, including specific criteria to help identify and prioritize those fire incidents that should be investigated.
  • Agencies do not have a systematic process for using the information identified in the investigations to inform decisions on prevention efforts. Without this information, it will be difficult for agency efforts to target fire prevention activities and resources and potentially reduce the incidence of human-caused wildland fires in the region.
  • The practice of dispatching law enforcement support to most fires, rather than considering the risk or safety concerns associated with individual fires, may delay fire suppression activities and prevent law enforcement from conducting other high-priority work, such as drug interdictions or fire investigations. Without a systematic risk-based approach that incorporates a consideration of the risks associated with individual fires, the agencies lack assurance that they are using their limited law enforcement resources in the most efficient manner.
  • Finally, the Interior agencies have taken an important step by informally following the Border Fire Response Protocol developed by the Forest Service, but without formally adopting the protocol or developing corresponding protocols of their own, they lessen the chances that the procedures in the protocol will be consistently followed.

Recommendations for Executive Action:

  • Re-examine the policy that all human-caused wildland fires be investigated. Once the agencies have determined the appropriate level of investigations, develop a strategy for determining which fires to investigate, including specific criteria to help select and prioritize those fire incidents that should be investigated; and develop a systematic process to use the information identified in the investigations to better target fire prevention activities and resources.
  • Develop a coordinated risk-based approach for the region to determine when law enforcement support is warranted for each wildland fire occurrence and adjust their response procedures accordingly.
  • Develop border-specific fire response guidance or review existing guidance to determine whether it is sufficient and, if so, formally adopt it.
  • Develop a strategy for determining which fires to investigate
  • Develop a systematic process to use the information identified in the investigations to better target fire prevention activities and resources.

More information:

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “GAO issues report on Arizona Border area fires”

  1. Now the Border Patrol has a very hard job tracking and catching illegals in remote areas. I do not think they will have a great deal of time or intrest in deciding to find out if they started a wildfire.

    The recommendations look good on paper but funding will place restrictions on them being carried out. And how would a fire prevention message be transmitted to illegal border crossers who risk death and have the single goal to get into the US undected?


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