Opinion: John McCain makes one too many runs for the border


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Are Mexican firebugs swarming over the border, torches in hand, setting fire to Arizona forests and wreaking smokey havoc across the West? In Sen. John McCain’s world, it seems they are. But the former GOP presidential candidate’s theories about the wildfires sweeping through his home state of Arizona don’t make a lot of sense.

McCain lit a fire of his own on Saturday when, asked by a TV reporter to explain how two Arizona wildfires could get so big and how such fires could be prevented, he said that some fires (though not necessarily the massive Monument blaze or the record-setting Wallow fire) are started by illegal border-crossers. ‘They 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 enforcement agents and agencies from them,’ he said. Because no one seemed quite sure where he was getting his information, McCain went on Don Imus’ radio show Monday to explain that he’d heard these things from a Forest Service briefing, as well as news articles.


Well, it sounds plausible enough; wildfires in L.A. are occasionally sparked by homeless people camping where they shouldn’t, so it’s reasonable to suspect that cooking fires from border-crossers might sometimes get out of control. But is this really a significant source of the wildfire problem in border states? It’s very unlikely, not least because it has been a long time since illegal immigrants have relied on signal fires to warn others of the approach of immigration agents (if they ever did). These days they use spotters, cellphones and text messages, according to a recent look at human smuggling operations by the New York Times. Moreover, people looking to elude the Border Patrol seldom light campfires, and the idea that they light them as a diversionary tactic is kind of bizarre.

The reporter who asked the question was clearly trying to get McCain to address an issue he dropped like a burning coal during his 2008 presidential campaign: climate change. That’s the real explanation for the increasing frequency and destructiveness of today’s wildfires, an outcome that climate models have predicted. McCain, the sponsor of a 2005 bill to reduce carbon emissions, knows quite well that talking about such things doesn’t play well with his state’s GOP voters. So now he prefers to talk about border enforcement, which usually fires up his base. This time, though, it just got him burned.


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