Wildfire conspiracies fan flames of fear

Alissa Azar was just trying to do her job. The Portland, Oregon-based journalist had traveled about an hour south to Molalla, where she was covering the recent wildfires with two colleagues. Holding cameras and with clearly displayed press badges, they stopped to take pictures and interview people evacuating the town. Suddenly, three men exited a car and approached. They were armed.

"When I looked up, there was a gun pointed straight at me, right in the center," Azar said. "They were being extremely aggressive and hostile."

Azar's two colleagues, documentarian Justin Yau and public radio reporter Sergio Olmos, managed to de-escalate the situation. But the men demanded the trio leave.

They are not the only people to be accosted by gun-toting men in Oregon since the blazes began. Militia-like activities, including armed roadblocks, have been seen in small towns across the state — apparently fueled by social media posts accusing leftists of deliberately starting the fires.

Alissa Azar and her colleagues were accosted by armed men while covering the recent wildfires.

Over the past several weeks, multiple people have been arrested on arson charges in rural areas. But local law enforcement agencies and the FBI have said there is no apparent political motive, and the suspects do not appear to be connected to any left-wing groups.

Still, this hasn't stopped the rumors from spreading. In some cases, they've even been echoed by high-profile media figures. Ex-Fox News host Glenn Beck falsely claimed that a "known BLM activist" was arrested for arson. Popular podcaster Joe Rogan incorrectly told his listeners that authorities have "arrested left-wing people for lighting these forest fires." Rogan later apologized for his comments.

Some law enforcement officers have compounded the problem. A sheriff's deputy in Clackamas County, where Molalla is located, was seen on video telling residents that anti-fascist activists were starting fires. He was placed on leave.

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts pledged to investigate any armed groups. "It's a crime that you confront somebody and hold them at gunpoint. And we're making it perfectly clear that those individuals, we're going to hold them accountable. We will do criminal investigations," he said, adding that his office currently has two underway.

Azar said she was shocked to see how online misinformation can have such a dangerous real-world impact. "I was aware of the rumors and conspiracies that were going on, but I honestly did not understand the severity or how far spread they were," she said. "For the wildfires to be politicized was the farthest thing from my mind."

Azar has also been covering the anti-police brutality protests that have continued in Portland for more than 100 days. She says social media has been rife with misinformation, and suggests it naturally became a problem with the wildfires. In some instances, people have been accused without evidence of falsely identifying as press and committing arson.

Alissa Azar
Alissa Azar, Oregon-based journalist.

The militia-like activities seen in Oregon are part of a nationwide surge. Groups have targeted Black Lives Matter protesters — most notably in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where teenage vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with shooting three people, two of whom died.

Azar's colleague Yau, meanwhile, says conspiracy theories are spurring the current climate of fear. "I think we live in a time where our nation has never been so divided in recent memory, and it's my understanding that these vigilantes that happened upon us were, in their own minds, serving the best interests of their communities and of their neighbors," he said.

He believes the problem isn't likely to go away soon — especially with November's presidential election drawing closer. "I feel that in itself, it demonstrates another sad truth about our country currently, more so to the future of our country and this election," he said.

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