SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (AP) — It always comes back to illegal immigration in Arizona — even when the state is on fire.
Sen. John McCain and other Republican politicians said Monday there was "substantial evidence" that border crossers were partly responsible for wildfires in the state. Fire officials say three major blazes in Arizona were started by humans, but they don't know any more details.
Activists swiftly jumped on McCain's statement as "scapegoating," saying that state leaders were merely deflecting attention away from wildfire response.
The debated raged as people returned to homes Monday that had been evacuated near the U.S.-Mexico border. A day earlier the so-called Monument fire swept off a mountain into the outskirts of Sierra Vista, forcing about 3,000 residents of 1,700 homes to flee.
The evacuations Sunday brought the total to about 10,000 people from 4,300 homes forced out by the blaze. The fire has burned more than 40 square miles since it started about a week ago. It had destroyed 44 homes before Sunday. It was about 27 percent contained as of Monday.
Meanwhile, in the central part of the state along the New Mexico border, the largest 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. Containment rose to 51 percent Monday.
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, the founding president and a current member 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.
On the fire lines in Sierra Vista, neighborhoods that had been shrouded in a massive plume of black smoke a day earlier were free of it Monday, and the towering mountain that fed the flames was smoldering.
Those forced from their homes waited to be escorted back in.
James Hernandez, a retired graphic artist who lives in Hereford, rushed back from vacation in California on Saturday when he heard that the fire had worsened and had jumped the four-lane Highway 92.
"The flames went over that," Hernandez said, noting that wildfires are a part of summer life in southern Arizona and normally aren't cause for concern. "They have never done that before."
At least one business was destroyed. And officials expected to get a confirmed count of the losses by later Monday, said Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
As for the Monument blaze, authorities kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a third day on Monday. And one of the last areas still evacuated near that fire in Arizona reopened Monday as residents of the resort town of Greer began to return home.
And authorities reported a new wildfire in north-central Arizona that officials said could threaten power lines running to Phoenix as well as some scattered ranches in coming days.
Eric Neitzel, spokesman for the Show Low fire department, said late Sunday night that the blaze, about 40 miles northeast of Payson, Ariz., had burned about 400 acres, which is less than 1 square mile.
There are several wildfires burning in spots across the southwestern U.S. In other blazes:
— Texas: Firefighters working to contain a massive wildfire in East Texas expected unusually hot and windy weather Monday, a day after several blazes broke out across the state and destroyed more than three dozen homes. About 1,800 homes and businesses were evacuated.
— California: Firefighters in the central part of the state are battling a blaze that has burned nearly 8 square miles of grassland on a westward run from a Kern County oil field to a remote area of eastern San Luis Obispo County. One structure has been destroyed. The blaze was 20 percent contained early Monday and had burned 5,068 acres since it started Sunday evening.
— New Mexico: A fire burning nine miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., had burned about 3,000 acres by Monday and was being driven northeast into the Pecos Wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service said. The fire broke out Saturday and was not threatening any structures.
— New Mexico: A fire burning on both sides of the New Mexico-Colorado border outside of Raton, N.M., was 90 percent contained and evacuations had all been lifted.
— New Mexico: Authorities in the southern part of the state were looking for "persons of interest" as they searched for the cause of a fire that burned several homes in the wooded community of Ruidoso, N.M.
Bob Christie reported from Phoenix.
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