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As the West Coast continues to fight deadly and unprecedented wildfires that have swept the region, misinformation is spreading on social media that antifa and far-right groups such as the Proud Boys were responsible for the fires, in some cases complicating relief efforts.
The sheriff’s office in Douglas County, Oregon, which is currently battling multiple active fires, took to Facebook on Thursday to plead with people to stop spreading rumors that six antifascists had been arrested for arson, saying it was overwhelming emergency dispatchers.
“Remember when we said to follow official sources only. Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder?” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted. “THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”
Responding to a commenter on another post who asked the sheriff’s office to “close down major highways to residents only to stop the arsonists,” the sheriff’s office responded: “What looting? If you are aware of criminal activity, the appropriate place to report that is to the Douglas County Dispatch Center, not Facebook.”
And police in Douglas County weren’t the only ones who had to clear up some noxious rumors this week: Social media posts claimed that a Clackamas County, Oregon, landowner got into a shootout with arsonists who threw Molotov cocktails and that another woman in the city of Springfield was trying to set a school on fire, the AP reported. Officials in Clackamas County told the AP there had been no such reports, while police in Springfield said they spoke to the woman and the rumor wasn’t true.
Another post from 2018 included a fake screenshot from police that five Proud Boys had been arrested for arson in Medford, Oregon, a town of 82,000 people in the path of the Alameda Fire. Medford Police posted to Facebook that the image and post were fake and that residents should “flag or ignore this post if you see it.”
After Portland couple Gabriel Trumbly and Jennifer Paulsen went to Molalla, Oregon, to take footage of the fires on Wednesday, rumors that spread in a local Facebook group claimed they were members of antifa who had set a fire, BuzzFeed News reported. The posts even included descriptions of their car.
Before long, Paulsen, who went to the local high school, and her partner were being hunted by armed men, she told BuzzFeed News; the Medford Police confirmed the existence of the armed men.
It’s not just random posters, either. Former U.S. Senate candidate Paul Romero, a Republican who lost his primary to QAnon supporter Jo Rae Perkins in May, helped fuel the rumors with a Twitter post falsely claiming that six members of antifa were in custody for arson. The post received hundreds of retweets and likes.
Romero told the AP the fires were set by an “army of arsonists” but didn’t back up his claim.
There is no evidence any of the fires have been set by people identifying as antifascists or Proud Boys. Police in Washington arrested a 36-year-old man suspected of arson on Wednesday but have released no information connecting him to any political movement.
Experts have said that extreme temperatures and high winds have fueled the fires, which number in the dozens in California, Washington, and Oregon. Dry lightning also helped start some of the fires in California last month.
“When you have a fire run 15 miles in one day, in one afternoon, there’s no model that can predict that,” U.S. Forest Service forester Steve Lohr told the AP about the Creek Fire, which has so far burned more than 175,000 acres and is just 6% contained. “The fires are behaving in such a way that we’ve not seen.”