For at least two years now, Arizona journalist Leo W. Banks has been writing and speaking about the strange silence of the federal government on the connection between forest fires in southern Arizona and the smugglers of drugs and human beings.
Banks has contrasted the widespread public belief that the fires are caused by the smugglers – either accidentally or in an effort to distract the Border Patrol – with the refusal of federal officials to address the issue.
"They won't talk about it. They'll say its human-caused, under investigation," Banks said at the June 3 luncheon hosted by CIS where he received the Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in Coverage of Immigration.
Addressing the politics of the issue, Banks added, "I think word has come down from Washington not to talk about it. Acknowledging that you have smuggler fires of this magnitude sort of messes up your message of border security."
Now reporter Brady McCombs of Tucson's Arizona Daily Star has taken up the issue.
Yesterday McCombs described the fires in "rugged, mountainous corridors frequently used by cross-border people and drug smugglers." He also noted "widespread speculation that those two fires may have been caused by illegal border crossers or smugglers even though fire investigators have said only they believe they were human caused."
McCombs expressed some understanding for the reluctance of the officials to address the issue. "Officials are not going to speculate about something without knowing for sure," he wrote. "Secondly, fire officials know the issue of illegal immigration is an extremely volatile issue and take great precaution to avoid creating a stir with their comments."
Then he made a point that highlights the remarkable absence of curiosity in high places about identifying just who is starting the fires:
And from what I can tell, there's been little (or no) research done to shed more light on the topic. I asked a fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University's Forestry School if anyone there had researched the frequency of fires caused by smugglers or illegal border crossers. She said no, and that she was unaware of any plans to research the topic, either.
From the smoky silence, McCombs drew this conclusion:
After this fire season, though, the question may become too pertinent not to address. We've now had three fires started in frequently used smuggling corridors that have burned 261,500 acres to date.