No, anti-fascists have not been arrested in connection with wildfires ravaging Oregon, and public officials are asking people to stop spreading the various false rumors claiming this to be the case.
Some mainstream conservative pundits and a major police trade publication, as well as conspiracy theorists aligned with QAnon, have all promoted the false narrative about the historically destructive and deadly wildfires.
While investigators are looking into arson as the possible cause of at least one fire, authorities say there is no evidence to suggest the arson is politically motivated. Utility providers have said some fires may have been started by downed power lines during historic winds and heat. Red flag wildfire warnings have been in effect for the better part of a week.
People pushing the conspiracy theories have largely pointed to the Almeda fire, which Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara confirmed has spurred a criminal investigation. O’Meara said rumors claiming anti-fascists were involved are “100% false information.”
“We have some leads, and none of it points in that direction,” he said.
Anti-fascist activism in Portland has been in the national spotlight this summer as President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed anti-fascists for violence at nightly racial justice protests.
Both national and state conservative figures have repeated the new conspiracy theories about the wildfires. Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Oregon and noted QAnon supporter Jo Rae Perkins shared a post Thursday from a popular QAnon account on Twitter that insinuates Democrats started the fires for political gain.
Paul Romero, whom Perkins defeated in the March primary, wrote a series of Twitter posts pushing the false claim that six anti-fascists had been arrested for arson in Douglas County.
Douglas County officials said that’s not true, and calls about the rumor were flooding its 911 lines.
“Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in Douglas County, Oregon,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted to Facebook Thursday morning. “THIS IS NOT TRUE!”
Similar claims gained national prominence after Turning Point USA representative Katie Daviscourt, who has more than 55,000 Twitter followers, posted Wednesday that unnamed law enforcement sources told her fires were “allegedly linked to Antifa and the riots.”
Law Enforcement Today, which says it is “America’s largest law enforcement owned and operated media outlet,” reported Thursday unnamed sources have told them the wildfires may be a “coordinated and planned” attack.
FBI spokesperson Beth Anne Steele refuted the claims when asked by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
“There is no indication that the fires are the result of coordinated criminal activity,” Steele said.
Conspiracy theorists have also pointed to a Molalla Police Department post on Facebook asking people to call 911 if they see suspicious activity after “a lot of rumors and posts,” going around about looters who may break into evacuated homes. The post was shared widely as supposed proof to back up the anti-fascist rumors.
But Molalla police edited the post at 2 a.m. Thursday to clarify that its warning of looters had no connection to anti-fascists. The department urged people to “stay calm and use common sense.”
Looting and theft have long been issues in areas affected by wildfires, as evacuated homes full of possessions are left unattended for extended periods of time.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Sergio Olmos and two independent journalists were approached Thursday by armed men in Molalla who told them to leave the city, Olmos said on Twitter. Photos posted by Olmos and a second journalist show armed men standing by the road and looking at the reporters.
“I was interviewing a couple, two men with rifles approached our group and asked what we were doing and what we’re taking pictures of,” Olmos said Thursday afternoon in a tweet. “Then [they] told us it was time to leave.”
Justin Yau, an independent journalist who was with Olmos at the time, said on Twitter the armed group was “wary of outsiders based on rumors of arsonists starting fires in the area.”
Noelle Crombie and Maxine Bernstein of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed to this report.
— K. Rambo