As firefighters and law-enforcement officers along the rural West Coast scramble to keep the public safe amid the rampaging wildfires that so far have burned 4.6 million acres, destroyed several towns, and killed 35 people, they’ve been forced to make multiple pleas to the public to stop spreading false rumors that the fires have been set by nefarious “antifa arsonists.” Of course, this cause wasn’t helped when an Oregon sheriff’s deputy was caught on video loudly amplifying the hoax.
The primary wellspring of the rumors has been social media, particularly Facebook—which responded Saturday by announcing it was banning all such rumors and disinformation from its pages and would be removing them. By Monday, however, the platform was still ripe with “antifa fires” talk—and armed vigilantes were still setting up checkpoints for travelers in rural areas where they feared the arrival of leftist looters.
"We are removing false claims that the wildfires in Oregon were started by certain groups," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone tweeted. "This is based on confirmation from law enforcement that these rumors are forcing local fire and police agencies to divert resources from fighting the fires and protecting the public."
A particularly popular set of posts, shared thousands of times on Facebook, originated from a hoax account called “Scarsdale NY Antifa,” and claimed to be helping set the fires: “We and other chapters of Antifa around Oregon have collaborated to ignite fires around the state to draw attention to #climateemergency,” one post read. Others from the same account made similar claims.
The comments from people who believed the claims still proliferated on Facebook through Monday: “All evidence antifa is behind Oregon and Washington state fires,” read one. Another, after listing various reports of arson arrests, none of which have been connected to politics, concluded: “These are probably coordinated by antifa or homegrown terrorists.”
One comment widely shared on Facebook laid out a scenario straight from an action film:
So my brother is a logger as you all know. One of the guys he works with owns about 50 acres between Welches and Sandy. Last night he saw somebody trying to start a fire on his property. He went down to the property and discovered a group of antifa throwing Molotov cocktails on his property. He had a fire truck on his property and immediately went down with his guys and tried to put out the fire. He also took his AR’s and they exchanged over 200 rounds of fire with the people. They called 911 and said that they were trying to light their property on fire and the police told them they were on their own.
“Has anyone seen or heard of 3 guys with Hoodies throwing bottles of gasoline in the Boring golf course?” one person speculated in a private Facebook group for the town of Boring. “I don’t know if it’s true, so I’m asking here if anyone knows.”
The false rumors were spreading on Twitter as well, despite the social-media giant’s policy against misinformation. On Monday, the hashtag #AntifaFires was still doing a booming business, thanks in no small part to several large accounts amplifying it at will.
Prominent among these was former San Francisco Giants outfielder Aubrey Huff, who repeated the hashtag frequently. A weekend tweet featured text from one of his fans. “These messages from people in The thick of the #wildfires are blowing up my DM’s,” Huff wrote. The media isn’t telling us the real story of the #AntifaFires.” The text read:
I live in the heart of the Willamette Valley in Albany, Oregon. With 3 fires all being 45 minutes away. Our skies have been nothing but red, orange or gray since Monday. Mornings are pitch black until about 9 am. And yes they are caused by Antifa. Trump supporters finally had enough of Antifa in Portland so hard working Oregonians went to them to protect the innocent. And since Antifa is a bunch of cowardly pussies, they had to try to set the state on fire and burn up the farmers, mill workers and all around hard working people of Oregon. They’ve destroyed small towns that can’t even be traveled to yet to even see who made it out alive. This is local terrorism at it’s worst and our piece of shit Governor Brown won’t even acknowledge it.
Several large alt-right accounts on Twitter, such as Paul Ramsey (aka Ramzpaul) amplified the rumors as well: “Antifa has been setting fires nightly in Oregon and Washington for the past 100 days. Time to implement the death penalty for arson,” Ramsey wrote.
Those tweeting out claims of “antifa arson” included QAnon cultist DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero, with some 389,000 followers, who claimed (while retweeting a blog piece about how antifa was starting the fires): “It’s not climate change. It’s arson.” A former Republican candidate for Congress named Joey Nations tweeted out multiple posts making similar claims.
Though the social-media giants platforming these rumors claim to be clamping down on them, the reality is that because they festered for the better part of a week, many of them had already filtered down to small local accounts and private Facebook groups where such regulations are difficult to enforce at best. And the hysteria online has produced predictable results in the real world, particularly in the rural areas beset by the fires, where locals are feeling forced to choose between following evacuation orders to save their lives and staying to defend their homes from the imagined hordes of black-clad looters.
The New York Times’ Mike Baker describes the kind of nightmare officials in charge of evacuating homes in the fires’ path now face—namely, recalcitrant homeowners refusing to leave for fear of “antifa looters.”
“There’s already reports that antifa’s in town, going down the streets looting,” one Oregon man who refused to leave told him. “I’m getting texts.”
Another man—described as stockpiling water, listening to his police scanner, and wetting down his neighbors’ homes “as a last line of defense”—told the Times that he and a number of his neighbors were staying put to protect their homes from “crowds of looters out of Portland.”
“We’re staying put and watching for people who aren’t supposed to be here,” he said.
A third man described how he had been digesting Facebook reports featuring black-masked thugs in hoodies, and now feared putting his home at risk if he left—vowing only to leave if the town of Molalla caught fire.
“You see what they’re doing downtown,” he said, referring to Portland. “It’s going to be a free-for-all. If I’m here and my buddies are here, that’s going to get stopped. This is what we’ve worked for our whole life. We’re not going to let anyone take it.”
Crude homemade signs have begun appearing in rural Oregon along county roads vowing: “Looters will be shot!” Another one read: “We won’t call your family. Your body will never be found. Bang bang!” A third: “Home and Armed: U Loot We Shoot!”
More disturbingly, small groups of armed vigilantes began popping up over the weekend in rural Oregon, primarily in Clackamas and Multnomah counties, forming ad-hoc “citizen checkpoints” demanding drivers give them identification and interrogating them about their politics. Some of these chased journalists, including an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter and a photographer on assignment, out of the areas.
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office tweeted out a statement explaining that such behavior is illegal: “Deputies have contacted several groups of residents in Corbett who have set up checkpoints and are stopping cars,” it said. “While we understand their intent is to keep the community safe, it is never legal to block a public roadway or force other citizens to stop.”
Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts similarly told CNN that he was concerned about the checkpoints: “The first thing I'd ask them to do is please stop that," Roberts. "It is illegal to stop somebody at gunpoint."
However, Roberts’ pleas were undermined by one of his own deputies, Mark Nikolai, who turned up in a pair of YouTube videos that went viral giving advice to the vigilantes on how to avoid prosecution for shooting anyone they suspect of being a looter—and moreover amplifying the claims that antifa was targeting rural areas with arson and looting.
In the first video, Nikolai can be heard advising the checkpoint vigilantes to stay within the law, because “the courts don’t give a shit about what you’re trying to do.” Later, he can be heard advising them how to prepare for a criminal case in the event they shot anyone: "You have to prove there was a serious physical injury or death, now you throw a fucking knife in their hand after you shoot them, that's on you," he said.
In the second video, Nikola fills a reporter in on likely antifa activities: “What I’m worried about is that there’s people stashing stuff. It means they’re going to go in preparation,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like a doomsdayer but it’s getting serious. We need the public’s help on this.” Then he adds: “Antifa motherfuckers are out causing hell, and there’s a lot of lives at stake and there’s a lot of people’s property at stake because these guys got some vendetta.”
Roberts promptly suspended Nikolai. “As soon as I was made aware of this incident, I moved swiftly to place this deputy on leave while we investigate,” Sheriff Roberts said via a press release. “The Sheriff’s Office mission is to provide calm and safety especially during unprecedented times such as these. I expect nothing less of our deputies, and apologize to all in our community.”
“Clackamas County is currently in a state of emergency due to several wildfires in our county,” the release reads. “It appears the deputy was aware he made these comments while on video. At the time of the comments, the deputy was tasked with ensuring that residents knew of the wildfire hazards while he was patrolling the area.
“This deputy has been placed on administrative leave while our Professional Standards Unit investigates this potential violation of policy.”
Officials leading law-enforcement agencies, also uniformly debunked the rumors, and pleaded with citizens flooding their switchboards with antifa sightings for calm.
In Oregon’s Jackson County—where a criminal arson investigation is under way regarding the large Almeda Fire, which has burned 3,200 acres between Medford and Ashland, killing four—law enforcement insists that the chief suspect, Michael Jarrod Bakkela, has no political connections or motivations.
“In no way does it point towards any political group, including anybody associated with antifa,” Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said. “Any rumors suggesting that it is pointed toward antifa are entirely fabricated.”
O’Meara continued: “There’s no reason to believe that this is politically motivated. And anybody that is speculating in that direction is being reckless and not working toward solving this problem or any other problem. It’s irresponsible for anybody to engage in that kind of speculation. There’s absolutely no basis for it.”
Sheriffs in Jackson County, Oregon, and Mason County, Washington, posted similar pleas, asking their constituents to stop spreading unsubstantiated claims.
Special Agent In Charge Renn Cannon of Portland’s FBI field office, told Oregon Public Broadcasting there’s no basis for the conspiracy theories. “FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon,” Cannon said in a statement Friday. “With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue. Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control.”