As wildfires continue to scorch millions of acres of land up and down the West Coast, a new online conspiracy theory is spreading too, which claims political organizations are deliberately starting fires.
The claim has been circling on Facebook and Twitter — so much so, that the police department of Medford, Oregon, posted a statement saying neither left-wing anti-fascist activists (commonly known as Antifa) or the far-right organization known as the Proud Boys were starting fires. The Portland FBI branch issued a statement later confirming this in Oregon.
An article by the website Law Enforcement Today further bolstered this conspiracy, claiming that unnamed federal agents started a series of fires in Washington, Oregon and California were under investigation as being part of a “coordinated attack.”
This post was shared to a popular Snoqualmie valley community Facebook page. Snoqualmie sits close to the small city of North Bend, which over the summer had another false Antifa scare, as rumors spread that a peaceful protest against police violence was being used as cover by political agitators. That conspiracy was also pushed by another online blog.
Sgt. Darren Wright, a spokesperson for the Washington State Patrol, said on Sept. 10 the department had no information about a concerted effort by political organizations to start wildfires in the state.
“We don’t have anything specific that connects any groups in any way to the fires,” he said.
Conspiracy theories have been given a boost by President Donald Trump, who has shared several conspiracy theories on his Twitter page since being elected. The media is also writing more about these theories and movements, said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories.
Uscinski said Americans have a long history of conspiratorial thinking — such as the Red Scare, school shootings being faked, and the Salem Witch Trials. And the people who are predisposed to seeing conspiracy behind every tragedy or disaster would make those connections with or without catalysts like social media.
And sometimes online conspiracies bleed over into the real world.
One notable example of this occurred this June in Forks, Washington. A family on a camping trip was followed by cars full of locals with guns, who believed anti-fascists were being bused in to cause mayhem in their town with a population of about 3,800. The incident made national headlines, but residents haven’t given investigators much information on what happened that day.
But if Antifa isn’t starting wildfires, then what’s happening?
Thomas Kyle-Milward, a spokesperson for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, said more people than usual flocked to the woods and other wilderness areas over the Labor Day weekend. That, combined with power lines knocked down in a powerful windstorm and people doing yard work in the warm weather, was “absolutely a recipe” for increased wildfires.
Since Sept. 7, more than 583,000 acres have burned in Washington state alone. Kyle-Milward dismissed the idea that members of political organizations are intentionally lighting fires.
“That narrative is not remotely factual,” he said. “The cause of every wildfire in our state is thoroughly investigated. Arson is not a suspected cause at this time for the increase in fire numbers we’re experiencing.”
Of the 853 wildfires the state Department of Natural Resources has responded to on its lands this year, 222 were started by debris piles burning out of control, and 107 stemmed from recreational activities like campfires of motorbikes.
It’s a large percentage of the overall fires. And as firefighters across the state battle blazes, Kyle-Milward has urged residents to be careful outdoors.
“Folks need to avoid activities that can cause a spark,” he said. “The best way to stop a fire from spreading is to never start it in the first place.”