Authorities in Oregon have been calling on the public to refrain from sharing unsubstantiated rumors currently spreading on social media that claim that political extremist groups have been deliberately starting the fires that have ravaged nearly 1 million acres of land in the state. The rumors being spread, depending on the source, claim that the fires are being lit by either the anti-fascist group Antifa or the far-right neo-fascist organization Proud Boys, with the intention of looting homes that have been evacuated ahead of the advance of the conflagration. However, authorities at both the state and municipal level have seen no indication that the fires have been started by political groups.
“We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories,” according to a September 10 Facebook post made by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. “Rumors make the job of protecting the community more difficult,” the office added.
The same day, the Douglas county sheriff’s office posted that “Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON.”
One misleading article posted on the Law Enforcement Today website alleged that the historic wildfires burning along the west coast were part of a “‘coordinated and planned’ attack”, and that “there are current concerns and allegations that many of these people who have started fires may be related to Antifa.” The article did point out that “… these allegations have not be [sic] confirmed.”
“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” according to a Oregon department of forestry spokesperson in a statement given to the New York Times.
“One thing I can say is that the rumor it was set by Antifa is 100% false information,” Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said in a statement to The Oregonian. “We have some leads, and none of it points in that direction.”
The wildfires in Oregon have been part of a historic fire season along the U.S. West Coast, with Oregon itself seeing nearly 1 million acres (380,000 hectares) of land engulfed in flames that have killed at least 23 people; 40,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, contrary to an erroneous statement that 500,000 had been evacuated, made by Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management. One person has been arrested for arson, allegedly having started the fire that destroyed multiple homes in Phoenix and eventually merged with the Almeda Drive Fire; contrary to rumors, this individual had no apparent affiliation with either the Antifa or Proud Boys groups.
The spread of California’s wildfires have reached historic levels, the worst recorded in the state’s history: as of September 11, 7,718 fires have burned 3,354,234 acres (1,357,410 hectares)—that’s more than 3 percent of the 100 million acres the Sunshine State covers. 24 people have been killed in the fires with over 6,400 buildings lost, at a cost of over $1 billion.
Washington State has seen over 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) consumed by fire, with Governor Jay Inslee declaring a state of emergency for the entirety of the state on August 19. Aside from the hot and dry conditions fueling the fires in the first place, battling the fires has been complicated by COVID-19-related personnel and resource shortages. Combined with the fires in Oregon, the Washington wildfires in 2020 were projected to be the worst in the United States by the Department of Natural Resources in early May.
While the west coast states are hardest hit this season, neighboring states have also been fighting their own blazes, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Air quality in cities along the West Coast has deteriorated to the point where a red haze is obscuring the sun, with numerous images of what are being described as “apocalyptic” scenes of re-tinted cityscapes circulating on social media.
The hot, dry conditions fueling these record-breaking fires are due to the continuation of long-standing drought conditions that have plagued the west half of the continent for years, conditions that have been exacerbated by global warming.