As enormous wildfires continue to rage across the West Coast, police are now combating false social media rumors that anti-fascists conspired to set the deadly blazes.
Dozens of fires are tearing through parts of Oregon, Washington and California, casting an orange or yellow hue across darkened skies in the middle of the day. At least 14 people have been killed, according to NPR.
While certain fires are being investigated as arson, many are thought to have been caused by drought, heat, lightning and high winds. There is no evidence suggesting the wildfires have political origins.
“THIS IS NOT TRUE!” read a Facebook post by the Douglas County Police Department in southwest Oregon on Thursday. “Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused antifa, an umbrella term for anti-fascist and anti-racist activists, of starting fires and outbreaks of violence at demonstrations across the country this summer ― despite a clear lack of evidence that this is true.
The president doubled down on his fearmongering by suggesting antifa and other racial justice activists would “destroy” suburban America unless he’s reelected. Trump’s attempts to demonize left-wing activists led him to threaten to designate antifa as a terrorist organization — which is likely impossible because the movement is decentralized and united mainly by common beliefs.
Failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Paul Romero was seen pushing the theory that antifa was also somehow behind the wildfires early Wednesday over Twitter, claiming video footage “confirmed” it. Romero falsely alleged that Douglas County arrested six “ANTIFA arsonists” and said there were still “more to track down and arrest” in the tweet, which was shared thousands of times.
Both Snopes and PolitiFact have debunked social media claims linking antifa to the wildfires this week.
Still, Douglas County’s emergency dispatchers have been “overrun” with calls from people asking for information on supposed antifa-linked suspects, the department said. In a nearby county, another department slapped a giant “FALSE” label over an image of a mugshot post alleging that five people had been arrested in connection with the fires.
“We did not arrest this person for arson, nor anyone affiliated with Antifa or ‘Proud Boys’ as we’ve heard throughout the day,” the Medford Police Department announced on Facebook.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon also urged caution.
“Rumors make the job of protecting the community more difficult,” the agency said.
Just south of Portland, a city where racial justice protests have been ongoing for more than three months, the Molalla Police Department was forced to clarify a post asking residents to report suspicious activity. It was about “possible looters, not antifa or setting of fires,” they said.
Although the Almeda fire in Oregon is being investigated as possible arson, the evidence simply does not point to left-wing political activism, Ashland Police Department Chief Tighe O’Meara told The Oregonian.
“One thing I can say is that the rumor it was set by Antifa is 100% false information,” O’Meara told the outlet. “We have some leads, and none of it points in that direction.”
Officials said earlier this week that one massive blaze, California’s El Dorado fire, was sparked by a gender-reveal party stunt gone terribly wrong. Experts believe that a warming climate, paired with an increasing human population, has been worsening the West Coast wildfires in recent years.
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