Gary Alan Fine Ph.D.

The Global Grapevine

Rumors on Fire: Illegal Immigrants and the Arizona Blaze

What do rumors about immigrants setting the Arizona fire reveal?

Posted Jun 17, 2011

By Gary Alan Fine 

     One of the most extensive wildfires in the history of the Southwest is still burning on the Arizona-New Mexico border. The Horseshoe 2 fire has been burning out of control since May 8th. And it is one of three fires that is currently affecting portions of eastern Arizona. It is a disaster that is only made tolerable because it is far removed from large towns and city. Still, a corner of our nation is being burned to a crisp. The fire has burned over 70,000 acres of national forest. 

     Students of rumors know that when disaster arrives, rumor is never far behind. We search for explanations that give meaning to events that are seemingly random. Rumors abounded in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake, the Gulf oil spill, and the devastation in Haiti. These cannot be random perturbations, but rather bad guys must stand behind them. Thus, Haitians (or at least some Haitians) believed that the earthquake was brought on by seismic experiments that went awry. As folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent points out, floods are often alleged to be linked to government water policies, designed to preserve wealthy communities at the expense of the impoverished. Any tragedy that just might be caused by human intervention is taken to be a conspiracy of some sort. Figure out who you most mistrust, and there is the villain. Ultimately rumors are not about truth, but, as Bill Ellis and I pointed out in The Global Grapevine, they are about what is plausible.

     And so it is in Arizona. Who might have set the fire? Who might have the most to gain? As websites such as LiveScience and newspapers such as the New York Times point out in their reporting, shortly after the fires gathered steam, local residents became convinced that they were started by undocumented aliens who were beating a path through Arizona. Some suggested that the perpetrators were careless and unconcerned and the fires were likely accidental, while others believed that it was a deliberate ploy to cause havoc or to divert American border control agents. As Helen Snyder, a retired biologist, noted in the Times, proponents of these rumors suggested that illegal immigrants who were being chased set the fire in order to escape. While she doubts this explanation, others find it all too plausible. The Times quotes Ed Ashurst, a local rancher, "Who set the fire? It's obvious. There's a few people in America who don't think man walked on the moon in 1969. To say that illegal aliens didn't set the fire is like saying that Neil Armstrong didn't walk on the moon." What could be more obvious? Only the naïve will be deceived. 

     Whether Mr. Ashurst is correct - and there is no firm evidence on who started the fire, although it does not appear to be from a natural cause such as lightning - his assessment is suggestive. He lacks any evidence - making his claim fall into the category of rumor - but he has a certain kind of logic. What is the primary concern in the region? Mexicans crossing the border. Further, it is believed that these invaders will do anything to stay in the country including setting a fire to aid their escape.

     It may be true that most wildfires in the area are caused by campfires that get out of control. In most cases those who are responsible are American citizens, but this does not mean that the next one will be set in the same way. And as the fire continues its merry burn, the perpetrator is still unknown and may never be determined. 

     As rumor scholars have long argued, the combination of importance (the fire) and ambiguity (uncertainty about the cause) give rise to rumor. These are the two sticks which when rubbed together produce a hot story. With the concern in Arizona - and elsewhere - about the porous border, the claim that the destruction resulted from our destructive immigration policy seemed too obvious to question. That we have immigrants to blame becomes an article of faith. But we should be cautious when a claim that is unproven fits too neatly into our beliefs. We have the luxury of time to decide what the true cause might be. But for many waiting for facts to emerge is beside the point. As a result, while the flames blow, many choose to embrace a rumor that is too good to be false.

Gary Alan Fine is the co-author of The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter.

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