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McCain defends remarks linking illegal immigrants to wildfires

Sen. John McCain on Monday defended his weekend statement that illegal immigrants were responsible for some Arizona wildfires, citing congressional testimony and published reports to support his contention.

Speaking from his home state Saturday, the Republican senator said that there was "substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally." He didn't specify what evidence, however.

The comment drew criticism, including from an unsuccessful candidate in Arizona's Democratic Senate primary in 2010, who accused McCain of fanning "the flames of intolerance."

Speaking on the "Imus in the Morning" radio show Monday, McCain stood by his statement.

"I was briefed by the Forest Service about the fact that illegal immigrants sometimes start these fires," he said. And there has been testimony by service officials that "large numbers of warming and cooking fires built and abandoned by cross-border violators have caused wildfires that have destroyed cultural and natural resources."

He also cited a Los Angeles Times report backing his claim, though it was unclear which article he was referencing.

Imus challenged McCain, though, saying the reports don't prove that illegal immigrants were responsible for the so-called Wallow blaze raging through eastern parts of the state.

McCain said he never was referring to the specific fire in his remarks.

"I'm surprised that anyone should be surprised that people have been doing this for some period of time," McCain said.

The Wallow fire is burning far north of the U.S.-Mexico border, though there are others nearer, according to InciWeb.

Meanwhile, much lighter winds Monday were allowing aircraft to again attack several fires in Arizona and New Mexico. Air crews had been grounded for most of Sunday. Firefighting efforts have been dogged for days by hot, windy weather.

The massive Wallow fire that has been burning in eastern Arizona for three weeks kept about 200 residents of Luna, N.M., under an evacuation order for a third day.

One of the last areas in Arizona still evacuated was reopening Monday. Residents of the picturesque resort town of Greer were being issued passes to return home. Early in the day, Greer Fire Chief Mark Wade was personally escorting the owners of 22 destroyed homes back to the area.