Rumors have spread across social media, claiming that the wildfires in Oregon were set by political activists. Law enforcement agencies have refuted those claims and asked residents to stop the spread of conspiracy theories.
As wildfires scorch the West Coast, misinformation is blazing across social media.
Rumors claim that in Oregon either left-wing, antifascist activists have set the fires or that members of the right-wing “Proud Boys” group are responsible. Neither rumor is true.
Police departments across that state have pleaded with residents to disregard the unfounded claims, and the FBI’s office in Portland issued a statement explaining that agents had investigated several such reports “and found them to be untrue.”
The FBI statement went on to warn, “Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control. Please help our entire community by only sharing validated information from official sources.”
Despite that, some residents of Molalla — a city under a mandatory evacuation order due to its proximity to the Riverside fire, which has burned more than 130,000 acres so far — refused to leave. “There’s already reports that antifa’s in town, going down the streets looting,” one man reportedly said.
But it’s not true.
The Molalla Police Department took to Facebook to address the “overwhelming” number of questions it had received regarding similar rumors.
“To help ease the fears of everyone we are going to list some of those questions here and answer them,” the department wrote on its Facebook page. Those questions and answers are below:
1. Are there looters in Molalla?
No incidents of looting have been confirmed. We are investigating all reported and on-sight suspicious activity in the Molalla City limits.
2. Is Antifa or other individuals intentionally setting fires/cutting power/etc within the City limits of Molalla?
There have been NO Incidents confirmed or suspected in Molalla City limits. If you know of or see any incidents, please call 911. If you have inquiries regarding incidents outside of the Molalla City limits, please contact the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.
3. Are armed militia/citizens working/collaborating with or for the Molalla Police?
No, we are not working with/or endorsing armed patrols/militia/posses. We do observe a person’s open carry and legal concealed carry rights.
4. Did the Molalla Police Department abandoned the city?
No, at no time did the Molalla Police Department abandon the city. In fact, we have used resources from multiple outside law enforcement agencies here to assist us with the emergency evacuations. As of this posting, Molalla PD has extra resources on patrol 24/7.
While many rumors are nebulous, one concrete example of a similar rumor has been shared thousands of times across Twitter and Facebook.
Paul J. Romero Jr., who came in second in a four-way Republican primary race for the Senate in May, tweeted from his campaign account on Sept. 9: “Oregon is on fire! Pallet Company in Oregon City confirmed Antifa arsonist on camera. Douglas County Sheriff has 6 ANTIFA arsonists in custody. Many fires in Oregon. Obviously there are more to track down and arrest. Governor Kate Brown built this.”
The following day, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement that said, in part: “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. THIS IS NOT TRUE!”
Romero didn’t respond to a request for comment and the tweet is still posted.
As for the claim regarding the Proud Boys’ supposed role in the fires, the Medford Police Department acted quickly to stop the rumor. A phony graphic that was made to look like a post from the Medford Police had been circulating online. The department slapped a “false” stamp on the picture and explained: “This is a made up graphic and story. We did not arrest this person for arson, nor anyone affiliated with Antifa or ‘Proud Boys’ as we’ve heard throughout the day. Also, no confirmed gatherings of Antifa which has also been reported.”
While the causes of the fires may vary, NASA explained in a recent post that the scale of the fires is due to “an unprecedented and historically rare windstorm that swept through the Cascade foothills in the afternoon of Monday Sep. 7 through the morning of Tuesday Sep. 8.”
Windstorms of that magnitude don’t usually happen until winter, the NASA post said, explaining, “In addition to the heat, it is another example of the changing weather patterns that are being seen.”
Increasingly hot, dry conditions contribute to the spread of wildfires, but rumors — like the ones seen in Oregon — often overshadow that issue on social media. We recently addressed a conspiracy theory about the fires in California, for example, and, earlier this year, we addressed claims about arson’s role in the Australian bushfires.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.
Oregon Military Department, Office of Emergency Management. State of Oregon Fires and Hotspots Dashboard. Accessed 11 Sep 2020.
Swenson, Ali. “Officials squash rumors of far right, far left setting fires.” Associated Press. 10 Sep 2020.
FBI, Portland. Press release. “FBI Releases Statement on Misinformation Related to Wildfires.” 11 Sep 2020.
Healy, Jack and Mike Baker. “In Oregon, a Year of Political Tumult Extends to Devastating Wildfires.” New York Times. 11 Sep 2020.
Molalla Police Department. Statement. Facebook. 11 Sep 2020.
Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Statement. Facebook. 10 Sep 2020.
Medford Police Department. Statement. Facebook. 9 Sep 2020.
NASA. “NASA’s Aqua Satellite Captures Devastating Wildfires in Oregon.” 10 Sep 2020.
Fichera, Angelo. “Meme Recycles Conspiracy Theory on California Wildfires.” FactCheck.org. 26 Aug 2020.
Hale Spencer, Saranac. “Setting the Record Straight on Climate Change and Arson in Australia’s Bushfires.” FactCheck.org. 17 Jan 2020.