As antifa-fueled violence rages in Portland, Oregon, officials are trying to extinguish rumors that the wildfires in other parts of the state are also linked to groups on either end of the political spectrum.
Roughly half a million people have been evacuated or forced from their homes due to what officials said is a devastating series of wildfires.
“We know we’re dealing with fire-related deaths and we’re preparing for a mass fatality incident based on what we know and the number of structures lost,” said the director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management, Andrew Phelps.
“The long-term recovery is going to last years,” he added during a news briefing Friday.
Amid the devastation, officials have been responding to claims that either members of the far-left coalition of so-called “anti-fascist” groups known as antifa on the left or the Proud Boys on the right are linked to the fires. Officials have tried to pour water on the claims by fighting social media rumors with social media facts.
On Thursday, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office used its Facebook page to urge people to reject false claims.
“Remember when we said to follow official sources only. Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? 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,” the post said.
“THIS IS NOT TRUE! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems. Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS! Follow official sources of information such as local emergency response websites and pages, government websites and pages and local reputable news outlets. Please, share far and wide!”
The department also posted a statement from FBI Special Agent in Charge Loren Cannon of the Portland FBI office:
“FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon. With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue,” Cannon said.
“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.”
On Wednesday, Medford police issued a Facebook post to push back against a rumor that they had arrested an extremist in connection with the fires.
“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. Please flag or ignore this post if you see it,” the department posted.
Despite the comments from police, Paul Romero, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Oregon, told The Associated Press that he blames the fires on an “army of arsonists.”
Ashland Deputy Police Chief Art LeCours said the fires there had “no connection whatsoever to antifa.”
Jackson County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Mike Moran noted that “there is no evidence at this point of a coordinated effort.”
“These investigations take time,” he said. “They’re intense. They’re fast moving. And so people ought to consider: ‘Does this even make sense?’ They should question anything they see in a social media setting.”
Earlier this week, 41-year-old Michael Jarrod Bakkela was arrested on charges of arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment in connection with his alleged role in setting one of the fires burning in southern Oregon, according to The Oregonian.
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