SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — As if Arizona's immigration debate wasn't already hot, Sen. John McCain has ignited a barrage of criticism by saying that there is "substantial evidence" that illegal immigrants are partly responsible for wildfires in the state.
McCain is standing by the statement he made over the weekend as he toured a massive wildfire in eastern Arizona, but immigrant rights advocates say the state's senior senator is using illegal immigrants as scapegoats. Authorities have said humans started the three major blazes in Arizona, but investigators don't know any more details.
"It's his constant refrain for everything that ails mankind," said Roberto Reveles, the founding president and a current member of the Phoenix-based Hispanic civil rights group Somos America. "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."
Appearing at a weekend news conference, McCain said that illegal immigrants "have set fires because they wanted to signal others .... and they have set fires because they wanted to divert law enforcement agencies."
On Tuesday, McCain said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show he was "puzzled" by the firestorm that has erupted after his remarks.
"We know that people who come across our border illegally ... that these fires are sometimes, some of them, caused by this," he said. McCain added, "I'm puzzled ... that there should be any controversy." He said he was merely repeating information he'd been given during a briefing with federal officials, including the U.S. Forest Service, before he appeared at the news conference.
The ruckus over McCain's comments came as thousands of evacuated Arizonans were allowed to return home from a wildfire that has destroyed 58 homes on the outskirts of Sierra Vista, Ariz., about 15 miles north of the Mexico border. An estimated 1,600 people remain evacuated.
The high winds that prompted additional evacuations and destroyed 14 homes and four businesses Sunday became considerably calmer Monday.
"We are very, very upbeat and confident that we are starting to turn a corner," said Mark Goeller, operations chief for the team fighting the so-called Monument fire, which has burned more than 42 square miles since it started about a week ago. It was 40 percent contained Monday night.
Along the border with New Mexico, the biggest blaze in state history has charred an area nearly 20 times that size but hasn't done as much damage to structures.
Despite burning more than 811 square miles since late May, the Wallow fire has destroyed just 32 homes and four rental cabins. Containment rose to 56 percent Monday.
The third major blaze, in the far southeastern part of the state, was 80 percent contained after charring more than 330 square miles since it started May 8. That fire, dubbed Horseshoe Two, 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 reporters: "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."
McCain and fellow Arizona Republicans Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. Paul Gosar released a joint statement Monday defending McCain, saying 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.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents southwestern Arizona, disagreed with that depiction.
"They served this, they pandered it, and now (they) say that anybody who criticizes that inappropriate, unsubstantiated claim somehow has a political agenda. This is a tragedy of huge proportions for Arizona. Those of us who criticize it are only reacting to what they started."
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 four-lane state Route 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."
As for the Wallow blaze, authorities kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a third day Monday. 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.
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. The blaze, about 40 miles northeast of Payson, had burned about 305 acres by Monday.
There were several other significant wildfires burning across the southwestern U.S.:
_ Officials in southeast Texas ordered the evacuation of about 1,800 homes and businesses as a fire believed to have been sparked by a barbecue pit burned early 8 square miles northwest of Houston. Two people were injured and nearly 30 homes were destroyed. It was one of many blazes firefighters were battling across the drought-plagued state, including 20 others that the Texas Forest Service said involved more than 120 square miles and consumed at least 35 homes combined.
_ Firefighters in central California were battling a blaze that has burned more than 8 square miles of grassland. A 19th century cattle branding camp and another outbuilding were destroyed. The blaze was 75 percent contained early Monday and full containment was expected by Tuesday.
_ Nine miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., smoke rose from the mountains for a third afternoon as the Pacheco Canyon fire marched toward the rugged Pecos Wilderness. The fire spread to 3,800 acres, or about 6 square miles, by Monday. No homes were in the path of the flames, but a power line was threatened.
Christie reported from Phoenix.