TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Illegal immigrants crossing into the United States in southern Arizona are suspected of causing eight major wildfires this year, which have cost taxpayers $5.1 million to fight.
In an already busy fire season, the fires charred 68,413 acres - about 108 square miles, according to an Arizona Daily Star review of public records and interviews with land managers published Monday.
Only fires bigger than 100 acres were included in the analysis, and officials said immigrants caused many smaller blazes that were quickly controlled. Southern Arizona has had 17 fires greater than 100 acres so far this year.
Fire officials haven't identified suspects in the eight fires, but said physical evidence strongly points to immigrants at the border crossings, the paper said.
Food containers, juice cans and water bottles from Mexico were found at many of the fires' starting points, nearly all of which were along popular smuggling routes rarely used by legal visitors.
In some cases, the blazes were traced to campfires that officials believe border crossers used for cooking or warmth and got out of control.
A ninth major fire in the area began May 13 when a Border Patrol helicopter sliced a power line with its tail rotor, according to a Forest Service investigation. That 467-acre fire, which cost $121,585 to fight, was ruled accidental, so no charges were filed.
Besides starting some wildfires, illegal entrants are altering how all blazes near the border are fought.
During two fires, officials waited longer than usual to light intentional backburns for fear of trapping border crossers in the flames. Some fire managers worry that crews working in remote locations might surprise armed drug smugglers ready to defend their loads.