Firefighters and police dealing with the unprecedented wildfires burning across the west coast of the US say false conspiracy theories spreading online are sapping their resources.
Facebook is “an absolute cesspool of misinformation right now”, one Washington State firefighter said, referencing questions from the public about fires being deliberately started by political groups.
Over three million acres have burned in California, Washington, and Oregon, with at least 16 people killed and hundreds of thousands evacuated.
Facebook posts reviewed by the Telegraph blame Democratic Oregon state governor Kate Brown for the fires, suggest they are a deliberate attempt to cause chaos, and falsely state that “antifa” is to blame. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Twitter accounts with thousands of followers also spread false claims that coordinated fire-setting by left-wing groups was behind the outbreaks. Twitter said tweets spreading the rumours were not in violation of its rules.
The FBI said that it had investigated the rumours and found them to be untrue.
“Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away [from] local fire and police agencies working around the clock to bring these fires under control,” said Loren Cannon, of the FBI’s Portland division.
Police in south Oregon are investigating the 3,000-acre Almeda fire as arson, but the local police chief said rumours of antifa involvement were “100% false information”, according to the Oregonian.
Police in the city of Molalla, Oregon, were forced to clarify that there had been “NO antifa in town” and appealed to locals to “stay calm and use common sense”.
The Sheriff’s Office in Douglas County, Oregon, said on its Facebook page that emergency phone lines had been “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! Unfortunately, people are spreading this rumor and it is causing problems.”
Many social media users are linking the fires to recent protests against racism in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Both cities have also seen some looting and fires, but there is no evidence that the events are connected.
It is normal for forest fires to burn across all three states in the autumn, but this year has seen them grow to an unprecedented scale, coating the entire US coast in smoke.
Dry vegetation is easily sparked by discarded cigarettes, sparks from towing or industrial activities, or damaged power lines, and fires have been quickly spread by high winds.
A rare lightning storm in August started California’s largest fire in the north-west of the state. Other incidents are believed to have been started by falling trees hitting power lines. In southern California one fire was started by pyrotechnics used in a baby gender reveal event, while another was started by a vehicle sending soot into vegetation.