Illegal immigrants take heat for California wildfires
July 28, 1996
From Correspondent Jim Hill
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Since January, nearly 300 wildfires have ravaged the area along the U.S.-Mexico border. While the scorching summer sun may seem the most likely culprit, fire officials in Southern California are blaming a more human element: illegal immigrants from nearby Mexico.
A program called Operation Gatekeeper has sharply reduced the flow of illegal immigrants in the Tijuana-San Diego area, prompting them to move eastward, into the steep and tinder- dry brushland of Otay Mountain, authorities say.
(621K QuickTime movie of forest fires)
Here, in the rough and remote country, immigrants set up camp after camp as they work their way through canyons and gullies, cutting trails to avoid detection.
These trails "are all over the fire areas," says Butch Campbell of the California Department of Forestry.
"Three years ago, the Otay Mountain area was fairly natural in character," says the Bureau of Land Management's Julia Dugan. "Now if you go out there, you find that's not the case."
Littered through the landscape now: trails of old campfires, discarded water bottles and clothing.
Pointing to an influx of "almost 3,000 illegal aliens a day," San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacobs describes a scenario of even more fires to come.
A council of agencies has been formed to try and stop the new flow of illegal immigrants. "You've got state, local and federal agencies that are all involved," explains the U.S. Border Patrol's Ken Stit. "All working for the same goal, and that's the safety of the people on that mountain."
Public service warnings also are being distributed in Mexico to tell potential border-crossers of the danger.
"The idea of cooperating with this forest program is the same idea that we have in cooperating with programs on chemical spills, flooding or any other disaster," says Mexican emergency official Sergio Perez Alvarez.
One U.S. official said the real issue is controlling the U.S.-Mexico border, a hot-button topic in southern California for years.
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