By Tim Gaynor
PALOMINAS, Ariz (Reuters) - The sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, said on Tuesday that Mexican drug smugglers are likely to blame for a wildfire that has scorched 27,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The remarks are likely to add to controversy over the origin of recent blazes which saw Arizona Senator John McCain draw criticism for suggesting some of them could have been started by illegal immigrants.
The so-called Monument Fire erupted a week ago in the Coronado National Forest and roared through steep slopes and rugged canyons of the Huachuca Mountains before breaking out into parched ranch lands and populated areas over the weekend.
At least 62 homes and a number of businesses have been gutted, and an estimated 11,000 people were forced to flee at the peak of the fire threat in an area southeast of the town of Sierra Vista, Arizona.
Diminished winds since Monday have helped firefighters make headway against the flames, and by Tuesday ground crews had managed to carve containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter.
Cochise Sheriff Larry Dever told reporters the fire was "man-caused" and began in an area closed to visitors and known to law enforcement for "high-intensity, drug- and human-trafficking."
"It wasn't the rabbits or the rattle snakes that started this fire, it was human beings, and the only human beings believed to be occupying (the area) were smugglers," he said during a news conference.
Dever added that a separate large blaze in southeastern Arizona, the Horseshoe 2 Fire, was likely sparked the same way.
Dever's statements gave credence to recent remarks by Senator McCain, who ignited a controversy after touring a larger wildfire farther north in Arizona on Saturday when he suggested some blazes were started by illegal immigrants.
"There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally," the Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate said at a news conference after paying a visit to the site of the Wallow Fire.
"I wouldn't take issue with the senator at all, in fact, I would support absolutely what he is suggesting," Dever told Reuters.
Federal fire authorities have said they suspect that an unattended campfire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest touched off that blaze, which has burned over 800 square miles and ranks as the largest in Arizona history.
Two "persons of interest" have been questioned by investigators, but they have not been identified, and no charges have been filed.
In response to McCain's remarks, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman was quoted by ABC News as saying there was no evidence to suggest illegal immigrants were to blame, and some critics said McCain was trying to make scapegoats of that group.
McCain has stood by his statement, saying he was speaking about "some of these fires," not necessarily the Wallow Fire.
On Monday, McCain, fellow Arizona Senator Jon Kyl and two Arizona congressmen, U.S. Representatives Jeff Flake and Paul Gosar, issued a joint statement saying that a Forest Service official who briefed them during their Wallow Fire visit told them that "some wildfires in Arizona are regrettably caused by drug smugglers and illegal immigrants."
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)