Out of Control

The incident commander says the Murphy Fire was started by a man in distress

The Murphy Complex Fire, which torched more than 68,000 acres of Coronado National Forest land north and west of Nogales, was started by a man in distress, according to the lead firefighter.

Asked how he knows the cause of the fire, Incident Commander Mark South, a longtime wild-lands firefighter, says, "Well, when they pull out a guy who is dehydrated and going into renal failure, and he admits starting it and says he needs help, that's a pretty good indication."

What is now known as the Murphy Fire consisted of two fires that merged—one at Lobo Tank, about 12 miles east of Arivaca in the Tumacacori Mountains, and another just southwest of there, near Murphy Peak and Dick's Peak.

The man's identity and legal status have not been released. But South says Border Patrol agents at the scene told him that the man was likely part of a group of 10 or 12 people. The area where the fire started is along the Peck Canyon Corridor, heavily used by drug-smugglers, illegal aliens and armed bandits who prey on both groups. Lobo Tank is about three miles north of Mesquite Seep, where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered on Dec. 14, 2010.

"I don't think they were drug-smugglers," South says. "They didn't see any drugs. But they could've dumped them someplace."

Speaking out for the first time, South tells the Tucson Weekly that the Lobo and Murphy fires were both distress fires. He says Border Patrol and Forest Service agents on the scene believed the distressed man, rescued from Lobo Tank on Monday, May 30, might also have started the Murphy Fire, but they weren't sure.

"But we do know that certain individuals came out of the burned area in the couple of days while we were out there in Arivaca," says South. "They took the dehydrated guy out Monday. Then Tuesday, there were two or three (people who) they picked up who were struggling, and I think Wednesday, there were a couple more."

South was in Arivaca managing his crew of 209 firefighters and did not see any of the men removed from the fire.

"But I'd talk to our guys on the radio, and they'd tell me, 'Hey, Mark, we've found some guys in distress, and we've contacted Border Patrol to come pull them out.' Later at meetings, the Border Patrol guys would come in and tell me the same thing. It's good to have Border Patrol in-pocket. They help us out a lot."

Forest Service officials did not return several calls for comment. When the Weekly asked the Border Patrol to respond to South's statement that they removed a distressed man from the scene of the Murphy Fire, Alilia McNeal, the agency's branch chief of external communications, responded with an e-mail statement provided to them by the Forest Service:

"The U.S. Forest Service did interview a person of interest that the U.S. Border Patrol had in medical custody. The U.S. Forest Service did not request the U.S. Border Patrol to detain the person of interest. The investigation continues and the U.S. Forest Service will not comment on continuing investigations."

A federal source familiar with the matter says the Forest Service decided not to prosecute the case because it was a signal fire under life-and-death circumstances.

Is it standard federal policy not to prosecute distressed individuals who start signal fires? Is the policy the same for citizens and illegal aliens? Dan Wirth, who works for the Department of the Interior, discussed the issue with the Weekly before the big fires broke out.

Speaking strictly about illegals, Wirth says he knows of no case in which a Mexican national has been prosecuted for setting fires. "It comes up that we should, but the reality is, what interest is there in prosecuting somebody when all they're going to do is deport them?" asks Wirth, Interior's Southwest border law-enforcement coordinator.

But if someone destroys thousands of acres of American public land, why not prosecute and put them in jail?

"Well, the attorneys will do that now," says Wirth. "But there is no way to get restitution from many of these people. The restitution process is one of the things we've struggled with, because there is an immense amount of resource-damage all along the border, and how do you go to the people directly responsible and prosecute them?"

South, who was incident commander during the first five days of the Murphy Fire, continues, describing what he was told: "When they found the guy at the Lobo Fire, he had fire all around him. He was lying on his back on the ground, and they had to drop buckets around him to keep him from burning up. He was badly dehydrated. They had to pull him out, or he would've died."

South says the Border Patrol took the man to a hospital. But once a fire case goes to Forest Service law enforcement, South knows little more about it, adding, "I do know that Forest Service agents visited one of the guys in the hospital to talk to him."

The identity of the man rescued at Lobo, known to both Border Patrol and the Forest Service, would likely tell a lot. Drug mules often have arrest records and prior deportations.

The Murphy Fire merged with the Pajarita Fire on June 5, earning the name Murphy Complex. This second blaze started in the Pajarita Wilderness on the border west of Nogales, also a heavy area for smugglers.

During the fire, South flew over the Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains, which constitute the main body of the Peck Corridor, and says, "There are smuggler trails everywhere on top, in the most inaccessible places you can imagine. Wonderful trails, and they're all smuggler trails."

South says it's common on the border for firefighters to use smuggler trails as fire breaks, and he did so on the Murphy Fire. He used a smuggler trail through Peck Canyon to protect David Lowell's Atascosa Ranch house. The effort succeeded, and Lowell's house was not damaged.

But Lowell says the fire burned across 35 square miles of his 50-square-mile ranch, destroying 80 percent of the family's rangeland. "It was a first-class disaster all the way around," he says.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to declare a state of emergency to get federal funds. Chairman Manuel Ruiz says several ranchers lost "a tremendous amount of grazing land to the fire." It also put a lot of truck and equipment traffic on county roads, already stressed by state cutbacks, and raised fears that monsoon rains could bring serious flooding.

"Any person in a life-and-death situation, no matter their status, is going to try to save themselves," says Ruiz. "Unfortunately, it affected the livelihood of our cattle-ranchers out there. It's tough."

Ruiz added that he will "certainly be in contact with the Forest Service to see what information they can release about exactly what the cause was, and a little more follow-up about the individual."

Sen. John McCain, who was attacked for suggesting some Arizona fires might have been started by illegals or drug-smugglers, was unavailable for comment on Monday, June 27.

Retired from Forest Service after 28 years, South, now 62, works part-time for the Tubac Fire District. But the Forest Service still calls him out to fight fires. He also fought the Monument Fire south of Sierra Vista in its early stages. When the Horseshoe 2 Fire broke out on May 8, he was asked to be incident commander, but declined. "I was working on another fire and had a real bad feeling about Horseshoe," he says. "It turns out I was right."

South has actively opposed Rep. Raul Grijalva's proposal to make the Coronado National Forest land west of Nogales—the so-called Tumacacori Highlands, the area of the Murphy Fire—into a wilderness. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify against it.

South has spoken out before about borderland fires. On June 19, 2010, he responded to the Fort Fire on Fort Huachuca and says the Border Patrol pulled out the illegal aliens who set it as a distress fire. South told this to a reporter and encouraged the journalist to call Border Patrol.

Within hours, South got a call from Border Patrol. He doesn't remember the name of the person who called, saying it was probably a public information officer. In a scolding tone, the agent said, "You can't say that, Mr. South."

He responded, "You mean to tell me that you know who started it, because they admitted it, but we can't say it?"

The agent said: "It's human-caused, under investigation."

South then called a friend at the Forest Service and asked what he should say. "He told me to say the fires start along smuggling trails and leave it at that," says South. "I was madder than a wet hen. This is happening, so why can't we say it, goldangit?"

In the accompanying chart, on Page 20, South lists 18 fires that have blazed along the Arizona border since February. He worked 13 of them.

Twelve of the 18 started along smuggler trails. In addition to the Murphy Fire, South believes the Jalisco Fire, south of Arivaca on June 18, was also a distress fire.

Five of the fires started innocently, such as by a spark from a welder's torch, or a power-line short. South says he doesn't know how the Patagonia Lake Fire started.

Some of the fires impacting Arizona start in Mexico and blow across the line. The Bull Fire in late April did that and burned 9,700 acres of the Coronado National Forest land west of Nogales. The borderlands rumor mill says the Bull Fire was part of a drug-cartel battle—one gang burning out the drug-smuggling routes of another.

Asked why he is talking, South says, "I'm tired of the cover-up, tired of the public not knowing what the truth is down here. I'm saddened by the destruction of the environment. This is my home. I've lived here since 1974. I started working for the Forest Service in 1975, and I can tell you the guys on the ground are livid. But they can't talk."

Most importantly, South worries about the potential loss of life if nothing changes.

"I think we've been lucky so far," he says.

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