The deadly wildfires in California, Washington and Oregon have blanketed the West Coast in smoke and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But on top of the chaos, locals — including first responders dealing with the crisis itself — are facing a wave of rumors about “antifa” purposefully starting fires.
It’s not clear where exactly the rumors began. But for months, armed right-wing groups have responded en masse, sometimes violently, to false reports of planned criminal activity by “antifa,” a shorthand for antifascist groups.
Some local officials are fed up.
“STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS.” read a Facebook post shared by the Douglas County, Oregon Sheriff’s Office.
“Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder?” the office wrote. “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.”
Remember when we said to follow official sources only. Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident…
Police in Molalla, about 45 min south of Portland, eventually edited a generic Facebook post about reporting “any suspicious activity” to clarify they were talking about possible looters, “not antifa or setting of fires.”
“There has been NO antifa in town as of this posting at 2:00 am,” they said early Thursday.
EDIT/CLARIFICATION: This is about possible looters, not antifa or setting of fires. There has been NO antifa in town…
A journalist who’d been checking out the area, Gabriel Trumbly, told BuzzFeed News that he and his partner Jennifer Paulsen were the subject of a fake antifa rumor cycle themselves in the area. A poster in a local Facebook group claimed to have “just witnessed a fire being started” and flagged the couple’s vehicle. Several people, commenting on the post, called for violence.
“This was kinda funny to me at first. However, after talking to Molalla PD, I was way too close to getting shot tonight,” Trumbly subsequently wrote on Twitter. “If my partner didn’t see one of the reposts, I was planning to go back a few hours later and film some more. Sounds like I would have been met by armed citizens.”
I am officially #AntifaTerrorist. Went out to Molalla, filmed some fires. Locals reported me to the police, and are looking for me to "shoot on sight." Within an hour of this post there were 180 comments, including a desire to "shoot on site" and to deputize locals. pic.twitter.com/UPrxBabPpp
— EverythingUndertheSun (@sun_everything) September 10, 2020
Snopes and Politifact identified a tweet from Turning Point USA’s Katie Daviscourt, which was shared thousands of times, that pointed to the police department’s original notice about “suspicious activity” and claimed “These fires are allegedly linked to Antifa and the Riots.”
Separately, Paul Romero, who lost Oregon’s Republican Senate primary this year to QAnon believer Jo Rae Perkins, wrote in a tweet shared more than ten thousand times that “Pallet Company in Oregon City confirmed Antifa arsonist on camera.”
Romero told the Associated Press that the fires could be pinned on an “army of arsonists” with fireworks, but offered no evidence. The only listed pallet company in Oregon City, Willamette Week later reported, “said they had experienced no fire or arson.”
To the north, Washington’s State Patrol and Department of Natural Resources were inundated with calls Thursday about the reports of antifa starting fires, The Spokesman-Review reported. While one man was arrested on suspicion of starting a fire on a highway, he made “no political statements” a patrol spokesperson told the paper. Accusations about the man’s affiliation with “antifa” appeared to stem from the 2014 arrest of a man with the same name at a protest in Washington. He faced charges related to weapons the police found in his backpack.
The AP tallied yet more rumors, one about a woman who purportedly tried to start a fire in Springfield, Oregon (she didn’t) and another about a reported shootout between a landowner and arsonists.
“So my brother is a logger as you all know,” a text message pictured in the false, viral Facebook post, began. It described the landowner discovering “a group of antifa throwing molotov cocktails on his property” and subsequently exchanging fire with the purported arsonists. Police told the AP that, contrary to the Facebook post’s claims, the described event never happened.
The rumors, in some cases, turned into armed confrontations.
“So we just got a few guns pulled on us,” journalist Alissa Azar tweeted, before posting a picture of the men who stopped her and other journalists with her, including Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Sergio Olmos.
These two militia guys just me and two other journalists to “get the fuck out of here” pic.twitter.com/9J3BySctHd
— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) September 10, 2020
In recent months, armed right-wingers have taken rumors as grounds to stage shows of force at the scene of suspected antifa sightings, such as when a multiracial family going camping in Washington was trapped at their campsite after armed men felled trees all around them. (Local high school students eventually cleared the way with their own chainsaws.)
In Bethel, Ohio, motorcycle gangs counterprotesting a Black Lives Matter demonstration assaulted several demonstrators in front of local law enforcement.
In July, armed groups including far-right extremist flocked to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, after a hoax event organizer promised an antifa flag burning. Ultimately, armed men confronted a man at Gettysburg Cemetery in a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. But the man in question, seminarian Trent Somes, wasn’t lighting fires — he was visiting an ancestor’s grave, he told The Washington Post.