An off-duty Border Patrol agent shooting recreationally is being investigated as the cause of the Sawmill Fire, which has burned nearly 47,000 acres and cost more than $1 million to fight so far.
In an emailed statement, the Border Patrol did not name the agent but said the agent reported the fire immediately after it began.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson has been given a report on the fire that was done by a U.S. Forest Service investigator, said Jeff Whitney, director of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, one of three agencies overseeing the firefighting effort, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
“Considering that the individual reported the fire as soon as it started ... as to whether we choose to go criminal (with the investigation) has yet to be determined by the three agencies,” Whitney said.
The agent’s self-reporting is “a credit to the individual,” he added.
“It’s regrettable,” Whitney said of the fire’s cause. “We’ll proceed through the normal channels to see what the possibilities are” in the investigation.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents many Border Patrol agents, will not comment until after the investigation is completed, said council spokesman Art Del Cueto.
Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest, also declined to comment on the fire’s cause.
“Our investigation is still active and we do not talk about it. That is our policy,” she said.
The fire began Sunday near Box Canyon about 10 miles southeast of Green Valley and has swept across the Santa Rita Mountains and into ranching grasslands dotted with mesquites south of Interstate 10 and west of Benson.
It had burned about 73 square miles — an area equivalent to nearly one-third the size of Tucson’s city limits — but was holding steady Thursday, after previously growing as fast as five miles in a day.
“It’s holding in place. It’s not grown much today,” Bea Day, a fire incident commander, told more than 200 residents at a Sawmill Fire update meeting Thursday night in the J-6 Ranch community, which is about 7 miles from the fire and remains under a pre-evacuation order.
The 46,954-acre fire was 40 percent contained Thursday night and 799 firefighting personnel from multiple agencies were battling it, now under the direction of a top-level Type 1 management team.
The blaze isn’t secured on its edges, is active on its eastern edge and can change rapidly, fire officials added, saying Friday and Saturday will be “critical” to the firefighting efforts because of continued high winds.
“But we’re confident the fire will hold,” Day said.
Another red-flag warning will be in place for the region Friday, with wind gusts up to 45 mph expected, according to the National Weather Service.
The winds expected Friday afternoon may cause the grounding of aircraft — as they did on Thursday because the wind made slurry drops ineffective.
Thursday morning, five helicopters and four fixed-wing aircraft did drop slurry and water on the fire, which is one reason firefighters made progress in stopping the blaze’s growth. Infrared and other technology is also helping them attack hot spots.
The $1 million-plus cost figure was provided by Jay Lusher, operations sections chief for the firefighting effort.
Officials reopened Arizona 83 through the burn area after the highway had been closed south of Interstate 10 to near Sonoita since Monday.
The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office assured J-6 Ranch residents at the meeting that if the fire moves closer and evacuations are ordered, deputies will direct traffic and will physically knock on doors to make sure residents get the word to leave. They’ll also patrol any evacuated neighborhoods, they told residents nervous about potential looting.
Another community update meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at Benson High School’s multipurpose room, 360 S. Patagonia St. in Benson.
Residents said they’re ready to move fast.
“We are all packed and ready to go,” said William Hume, 63, a retired government worker. “Hopefully the wind stays out west and doesn’t turn around.”
Hume and his wife bought land and a Santa Fe-style home a year ago in the J-6 area.
“Everybody is a little nervous. But, it is what it is. You can’t beat Mother Nature. If you have to go, you have to go,” said Hume, who plans to stay with his brother in Tucson if evacuated.
Paul Lundberg, a 28-year-old cook, has lived in the J-6 area all his life. He said he was a bit nervous earlier in the week about the fire, but not now.
“I’m ready to go. I’m all packed, and if I have to make a move, I will go,” he said.
Brian Rountree and his girlfriend, Melinda Mathews, were all packed and were beginning a trip to Indiana.
Rountree, 55, said he smelled smoke and saw the glow of the fire Wednesday night from Mathews’ 4.6-acre property, which was left to her by her late father. One of their neighbors moved her 10 horses to a friend’s place, further from the fire area.
“My Dad lived here 35 years and added to his manufactured home. I don’t know if it will be here when we get back,” Mathews said. “I hope so, because it was his.”