Transparency, Please

Residents devastated by the Sierra Vista-area Monument Fire demand answers

Retired teacher Larry Kastens stands amid the rubble of his home in Ash Canyon.

A Hollywood director searching for a location to film the post-apocalypse should come to the Huachuca Mountains outside of Sierra Vista.

The Monument Fire began at the border on June 12 and scorched across this once-beautiful landscape, bringing terror and destruction to places like Ash Canyon.

Residents are beginning to rebuild, just as monsoon rains bring the potential for devastating flooding.

They also want to know who did this.

Representatives of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service are still investigating the human-caused fire, and some doubt that the feds will release their completed findings.

Chuck Alton, station manager at Cochise TV, a Bisbee-based news outlet, says it's important for citizens to know everything. "Whether they release it or not is a hard question," says Alton. "I don't trust the federal government to do what I think they ought to do. If it's real sensitive, I wouldn't put it past them not to."

Documentary filmmaker Mercedes Maharis says pocketing the report would be unacceptable. "We want to know, and we have a right to know," says Maharis, whose home on the east side of the Huachucas was saved. "There needs to be full accountability."

She says an encounter with a federal official didn't inspire confidence. On June 27, before a public meeting at Buena High School, Maharis and her husband, Bob, spoke with John Morlock, who was in Sierra Vista on assignment as acting administrator for the Coronado National Memorial. They asked if the fire report would be released.

"We're like law enforcement," Morlock responded. "This might never be released."

"Is it a secret?" Bob asked.

When Morlock didn't respond, Mercedes pressed: "What about transparency?"

"I'll pass that along," Morlock replied.

Reached in Texas, where he is superintendent at Fort Davis National Historic Site, Morlock confirmed Maharis' account, adding that he intended to convey that he just didn't know. Morlock stressed that he wants the report made public, as did Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch.

Upchurch couldn't say when that might happen. He says closing a case makes public everything investigators have gathered, and they "lose whatever leverage they might have in pursuing a suspect. As soon as it is determined there are no other leads to follow, then, yes, it would be made public."

Upchurch acknowledged that can take years, saying, "We're not trying to be secretive, but we're trying to make sure we follow all possible leads."

The Monument Fire began right across the line in Mexico, near where the pedestrian fence ends and the Normandy vehicle barriers begin, says Mark South, a firefighter on the scene. It burned more than 30,500 acres, destroying more than 60 homes and forcing the evacuation of 12,000 people.

As Pat Call of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors told Cochise TV, "It made refugees of one-third of our community."

County Sheriff Larry Dever believes the fire was started by cross-border smugglers, noting the area where the fire started has been an active drug-smuggling route. Dever, too, says he has encountered federal resistance to sharing information.

He says he's heard that the Border Patrol was pursuing smugglers when the fire started, and that the agency has video of illegal activity in that area at the time. He asked senior agency representatives at the fire command center if the video rumor was true. They said they'd get back to him, but did not.

In Nogales on July 7, he asked the same question of Randy Hill, chief patrol agent in Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, and got no answer then, either.

"By now, Border Patrol knows if they have footage or not," he says. "To be continually told 'we'll check into it' is pretty frustrating."

However, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Victor Brabble has now confirmed to the Tucson Weekly that the agency has "no video footage of illegal activity related to the fire."

On June 27, Border Patrol officially denied that agents were pursuing people near the fire. They also acknowledged that an agent responded when he saw smoke about 1 p.m. on June 12. He drove to the fire, but determined it was too large to extinguish himself and called dispatch. Hill told the Weekly he saw photos the agent took of the fire, and no people were in them.

But Dever isn't alone in hearing that agents were pursuing smugglers. On June 30, the Weekly told the story of Ash Canyon residents Art Douglas and Larry Kastens, who spoke to a Border Patrol agent on the Coronado Memorial Road about 2 p.m.

"The first thing the agent said was, 'I've been down here all morning in communication with our guys who have been watching a group of illegals. They started the fire, and it was probably a diversionary tactic to bring in either drugs or people,'" recalled Douglas, a former long-range weather forecaster for the Mexican government. He said the agent didn't hesitate or equivocate. "He said, 'This is what I heard.' It was never presented as supposition."

Douglas and Kastens lost their homes in Ash two days later.

A man recounted a similar experience at a public meeting in Sierra Vista on June 27. He said a Border Patrol agent friend told him they were pursuing six drug smugglers the day of the fire, and they set the fire as a diversion to escape Border Patrol.

The man added: "I have a hard time distinguishing now between a drug trafficker and a terrorist ... and I think we're being terrorized by terrorists. And unfortunately, unless we can do something about this area on the Monument side anyway, this could happen again, and again and again."

Asked on July 12 at Border Patrol's Nogales headquarters about the account by Douglas and Kastens, Hill said that was the first he'd heard of it.

Brabble declined to comment on talks between citizens and ground agents. "If agents are talking about official matters, they're out of their lane," he says.

As for the investigation, Forest Service on July 6 asked anyone with information about the fire to call headquarters in Tucson. However, as of this writing, no investigator had contacted Douglas or Kastens.

Asked about this, Upchurch says investigators have talked to the Border Patrol, and would've gotten from them the same information the Border Patrol gave to Douglas and Kastens.

So you have no plans to contact the two men?

"If they come forward with information, we'd be happy to talk with them," says Upchurch.

Douglas says he walked into the Forest Service office in Sierra Vista on July 14 with questions about the fire and says, "They weren't interested in talking to me about anything."

Certainly, no anecdotal report proves what happened that day. But they add to a suspicion some have that federal agencies aren't playing straight.

John Herrod, a doctor in Sierra Vista for 16 years, doesn't hold back when asked if the government will release a report. "In as much as they whitewashed the public every night at these fire meetings and that what they were saying was pure, unadulterated propaganda, no, I don't think they'll ever release the report," says Herrod, who lost two houses in Ash. "I have zero confidence in anything they do."

Alton says some residents think anyone who even asks how the fire started is racist. He is not among them. "I want to know like I wanted Osama bin Laden to pay," he says. "That's how strongly I feel about wanting to know who started the damn fire."

Morlock doubts the investigation will produce a suspect, and he adds that it'd be unfair to declare a cover-up based on a lack of a suspect. "You can't resolve every case," he says. "And to turn right around and say, 'Oh, well, the government is hiding something,' that's a knee-jerk reaction."

Maharis isn't buying that. She urges people to write to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and to Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl. But she says even that probably won't force the agencies to come clean.

"It's too much of a political nuclear bomb, because nobody wants to fix the border," she says. "They'll go halfway around the world to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to protect people, but when it comes to American citizens in border counties, hundreds of thousands of us paying taxes and paying their salaries, it's like we don't exist."

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