Washington – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday offered an explanation for earlier comments that appeared to blame undocumented immigrants for the massive wildfire ranging in eastern Arizona.
The senator's communications director, Brooke Buchanan, said in a communique that his remarks on Saturday referred to the fires in southern Arizona, not to the giant Wallow Fire that has destroyed more than 200,000 hectares (484,000 acres).
"The facts are clear. For years, federal, state and local officials have stated that smugglers and illegal immigrants have caused fires on our southern border," Buchanan said.
"During the press conference on Saturday, Sen. McCain was referring to fires on the Arizona/Mexico border, not the Wallow Fire," the statement continued.
The controversy erupted on Saturday when McCain told reporters in Springerville, Arizona, that "there is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally."
According to McCain, who at the time offered no proof to substantiate his claim, immigrants set fires to divert the attention of the Border Patrol and thus give themselves the chance to sneak across the border undetected.
"The answer to that part of the problem is to get a secure border," the former 2008 presidential candidate said.
But his remarks quickly spread via the Internet and were rejected by pro-immigrant groups all over the country and in editorials in Arizona dailies like the Tucson Citizen.
In remarks to ABC News, a spokesman for the Forest Service, Tom Berglund, said that no evidence had been found that undocumented immigrants started the Wallow Fire.
Firefighting teams are struggling to control that blaze, which broke out on May 31, has caused many people to have to evacuate their homes and is considered to be the worst wildfire in Arizona history.
According to Buchanan, McCain and three other senators in July 2010 requested that the Government Accountability Office perform a study on the connection between smugglers and undocumented immigrants and fires over the past five years within an area stretching for 160 kilometers (99 miles) along the Arizona-Mexico border.
The GAO report will be released in the coming months, Buchanan said.