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Wildfires spawn false rumors blaming far right, far left for setting them

Fires rage in the central Oregon town of Talent, near Medford, late Tuesday.
(Kevin Jantzer)

Raging wildfires in the Pacific Northwest have given rise to a barrage of false information this week as unsubstantiated social media posts blamed coordinated groups of arsonists from both the far left and far right for setting the blazes.

Officials turned to Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday to squash competing false narratives. Some posts blamed far-left antifa activists for the fires that have scorched wide swaths of Oregon and Washington state; others pointed a finger at the far-right group Proud Boys.

“Remember when we said to follow official sources only,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon posted. “Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? 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.”

As fires heavily damaged the small Oregon towns of Phoenix and Talent, the nearby Medford Police Department said on Facebook that officers had not arrested anyone affiliated with either the Proud Boys or antifa, which is short for anti-fascists, a range of far-left groups that oppose white supremacists.

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Medford police also debunked a fake graphic spreading online that used the department’s logo and a photo from an unrelated 2018 arrest to claim falsely that five Proud Boys had been arrested on suspicion of arson.

It’s not yet clear how the fires began, but officials said high winds and dry conditions made them worse in a region whose cool, wet climate has historically protected it from intense fire activity. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the state could see the greatest loss of life and property from wildfires in its history.

Like the winds that race down the mountainsides near Los Angeles each fall, gaining heat and fanning the flames as they go, the gales that struck Oregon over the weekend have turned small fires into infernos.

Far-left and far-right groups have been clashing during protests in the Northwest, particularly in Portland, Ore., where a caravan of President Trump’s supporters drove pickup trucks through the liberal city last month. An antifa supporter shot and killed a member of a right-wing group and was fatally shot by Washington state authorities a week later.

A social media post shared widely Thursday featured a picture of a woman along with claims that she tried to start a fire near a high school in Springfield, Ore. Springfield police told the Associated Press that they spoke to the woman Wednesday and that the allegation wasn’t true.

Another post claimed that a landowner called authorities after arsonists threw Molotov cocktails on his land in Oregon’s Clackamas County and that a shootout ensued. The county sheriff’s office told the AP that no such incident report existed.

Thousands of Twitter and Facebook users shared posts to try to link the fires to antifa activists, including Paul Romero, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Oregon.

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Reached by phone, Romero blamed the surge in fires statewide on a coordinated “army of arsonists” but offered no evidence to support that claim.

Police are investigating a fire that originated in Ashland, Ore., as a potential arson after finding human remains, Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler told reporters Wednesday.

However, Ashland Deputy Police Chief Art LeCours confirmed to the AP that the case has “no connection whatsoever to antifa.”

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has launched an investigation into the fires, but no arrests have been made, and there is no evidence at this point of a coordinated effort, spokesman Mike Moran said.

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“These investigations take time,” he said. “They’re intense. They’re fast-moving. And so people ought to consider: ‘Does this even make sense?’ They should question anything they see in a social media setting.”


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