By SYDNEY RICHARDSON
Arizona Sonora News
Out of all the conflicts that might arise from trying to make your livelihood off of ranching cattle, the last thing ranchers in the Sonoran Desert want to deal with is fire, especially fires that may have been deliberately set.
Sometimes it’s just part of the job, says Dan Bell, owner of the 50,000-acre ZZ Cattle Corp., a ranch in Nogales that sprawls along the border.
“Fires are natural. But it’s based off the time of year,” Bell said. “Usually you will get fires right before monsoon season, when you have lightning strikes and things of that nature. And with that comes different humidity, so the fires tend to be not as fierce as they would be at other times”
But it’s not the naturally caused fires that have the most effect on those who operate ranches along the border.
Some fires are deliberately set as diversionary tactics by smugglers crossing the border who hope to draw law enforcement attention away from themselves. Other fires, the ranchers and law enforcement say, can be inadvertently caused by undocumented border crossers lighting campfires or even carelessly tossing cigarettes.
According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office study, 2,467 reported wildland fires occurred between 2006 and 2010n in Arizona’s border region, and about 86 percent were caused by humans. The study, which is widely cited by those seeking stronger border enforcement, noted that the number of those fires started by immigrants is inconclusive because not every human-caused fire has gone under an investigation by federal land management agencies.
But of the 77 investigated wildland fires, 30 fires, or 39 percent, were suspected to have been ignited by illegal border crossers.
Coronado National Forest, a division of the U.S. Forest Service, owns vast tracts of border land leased by ranchers. The agency never speculates on the cause of a fire without specific evidence, according to Heidi Schewel, a spokeswoman. but it is easy to differentiate between a natural and human-caused fire.
“In this part of the country there are only two types of fires: human-caused and lightning-caused. If there’s no lightning, then we know it was started by humans. We then look for proper evidence to find out how it was started,” Schewel said.
Although she said she was unable to provide specific numbers, Schewel says many investigations go unsolved because there is not a significant amount of evidence to prove the cause.
The most controversial fires are those started by drug smugglers. According to Bell, smugglers will light fires on his ranch land and walk along the fire to get to their destination in order to deter Border Patrol.
Although physical evidence can be scarce, investigators can use the location of the fire as evidence for the probable cause of a fire–especially when the area of ignition is a known drug smuggling trail. According to the GAO report, the investigation report for the 3,400 acre Horseshoe Fire stated that there was evidence that drug smugglers were in the area.
While these diversionary fires might get the smugglers where they need to go to support their own livelihoods, the fires are consequently damaging to Bell and other ranchers that live near the border.
In order for the Sonoran desert ranches to function for a year, they rely entirely on the summer rains to grow vegetation for their crop. When illegal, unprecedented fires start and are not quickly maintained, every piece of land that the fire touches then becomes unusable for grazing.
In 2011 a fire started by immigrants crossing the border burned two-thirds of ZZ Cattle Ranch, destroying the grass that Bell relies on to feed and bulk up his crop in order to sell them later in the year.
“We’ve had to reduce the herd numbers because we just don’t have the feed out there,” said Bell.
Ironically, negative effects of these fires also show on the smugglers side of the story.
“Those fires in 2011 fires were so severe that it actually hampered what they were doing for a couple of years because it got rid of a lot of the cover they were using” said Bell.
While diversionary fires are of particular concern, especially to Border Patrol, during Bell’s time running the ranch he has seen fires started by immigrants for a couple other reasons: warming and distress.
It is not uncommon for Bell to run into migrants on his 50,000-acre ranch, especially since it extends right up to the border. Bell says that during their journey immigrants will often light fires for warmth but not extinguish them. Then the wind picks up, and the fire can get out of control.
“I don’t think it’s an accident at all,” Bell said. “You shouldn’t light a fire if you don’t plan on extinguishing it.”
According to Bell, a man who had a medical emergency while crossing the border ignited the Murphy portion of the Murphy Complex fire in 2011, which in total burned 68,000 acres.
While distress fires are a way for Border Patrol to find immigrants crossing the border, the “Tucson Sector does not condone the use of signal fires in any capacity. Individuals that are in distress are strongly encouraged to utilize the 911 emergency system” according to the Border Patrol Public Affairs office.
Border Patrol also invests in technology that would increase rescue and decrease fire signals. The agency says that the Tucson sector has invested in 32 rescue beacons that provide either a light at night or reflectors during the day that can be seen for miles, and when activated GPS coordinates are relayed for a swift rescue response.
Ranchers in the Sonoran Desert are not just passive owners who watch their cowboys do all the work. On any given day they can be found working to ensure growth of their crop. Because of this, they are often the first to notice a fire.
Regardless of whether or not the fire was started by the elements or humans, Bell has a procedure that he follows in order to ensure the safety of his land and his crop.
“First thing I want to do is notify the forest service that there is fire,” Bell said. “The second thing is to find out where exactly the fire is to see if we have any cattle in harm’s way. If we do, then we have to work with the forest service to figure out where we can put the cattle.”
The forest service works with Bell in order to make the best plan to minimize the effects of the fire, which sometimes include temporarily moving the cattle onto other ranches. Although competitors, the ranchers near the border say they are willing to lend a hand when unforeseen circumstances arise.
Sydney is studying Journalism at the University of Arizona, hoping to pursue a career in photojournalism upon graduation. She is from Mesa, Arizona and will take any chance thrown at her to go on a road trip.