The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scapegoating antifa for starting wildfires distracts from the real causes

Radicals have long been blamed for wildfires in the Pacific Northwest

The melted sign of the Oak Park Motel, destroyed by the flames of the Beachie Creek Fire, is seen in Gates, Ore., on Sunday. (Rob Schumacher/AFP/Getty Images)
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Recently, rumors started spreading on social media that many of the devastating wildfires burning throughout the Pacific Northwest were intentionally started by “antifa,” a small, loose collective of left-wing activists that is often demonized by conservatives. The debunked claim was even promoted to millions of listeners by popular podcaster Joe Rogan.

Some people in rural Oregon have taken the unfounded rumors so seriously that they have begun to conduct armed patrols of their towns, looking for masked antifa activists. Others have refused to abide by evacuation orders, choosing instead to stay in their homes, despite advancing fires, to defend their property against what they believe are approaching hordes of anarchists.

Yet, there’s no credible evidence that antifa activists are responsible for starting any of the fires now burning throughout the Northwest. Even local law enforcement and the FBI have taken to social media to dispel the rumors.

Joe Rogan repeats debunked claim that ‘left-wing people’ are starting Oregon wildfires

But blaming wildfires in the Pacific Northwest on radical activists is not new. The region has long been home to both far-left politics and massive forest fires. And, in the past, just as today, rumors about radical arsonists setting blazes has served to stoke fears about activists and shift attention away from the real causes of wildfire.

The first group to be regularly charged with setting forest fires was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union founded in 1905. Though a national organization, the Wobblies, as the union’s members were more popularly known, were especially active in the Northwest’s timber industry.

Unlike most of the American labor movement, the IWW welcomed women, immigrants and workers of color. The union’s members literally stood on soapboxes in cities and preached about the evils of industry, while their songs promised a time in the not too distant future when workers would join and overthrow the capitalist system.

The IWW was also a controversial group because its activism extended beyond boycotts and strikes. Wobbly leaders often endorsed industrial sabotage, breaking equipment or destroying worksites when employers didn’t pay fair wages or provide decent working conditions.

The IWW’s radicalism along with its willingness to destroy property may explain why many Northwesterners were quick to jump to the conclusion that Wobblies were responsible for the alarming number of fires that burned through Northwest forests in the early 20th century.

While today’s wildfires are larger and far more destructive than fires of the past, forest fires actually occurred with more frequency in the early 20th century. For instance, in the particularly bad fire year of 1917, Oregon experienced 1,645 fires that burned roughly 258,000 acres. By contrast, so far in 2020 there has been 668 fires that have burned more than 1 million acres (numbers that will certainly go up over the next several weeks).

Lumber companies were largely responsible for fighting fires in the early 20th century, and the fire records in company archives are filled with claims made by logging camp superintendents or foremen that Wobblies were responsible for nearly every fire event in the Northwest woods, from small flare-ups to large conflagrations.

Northwest newspapers often repeated these claims. “I.W.W. Fire Burns Town,” read a headline in the Tacoma Times in August of 1917. The article then detailed how several towns had been burned to ashes by a fire started by striking Wobblies.

The association between Wobbly radicalism and fire even made it into popular culture. In his semi-autobiographical story about working as an early 20th-century wildland firefighter, “USFS 1919: Ranger, The Cook, and The Hole in the Sky,” the famous Montana writer Norman Maclean suspected that many of the fires he worked had been started by irate Wobblies. “They were happy to see our country burn,” wrote Maclean.

In 1919, when the Sound Timber Company, operating in northern Washington, was sued by a neighboring land owner for fire damage, the company argued that it wasn’t at fault because the fire on its property had been started by striking IWW members. Lawyers for the company could only produce one witness to testify that a Wobbly started the fire, and then he changed his story under cross examination. Ultimately, the court ruled that it was probably a spark from the company’s railroad that’d started the blaze.

The Sound Timber Company case reveals some of why companies were quick to blame the IWW when forests burned: it distracted from their own role in causing fires. Early 20th-century logging operations were extremely fire prone. Railroad cars and donkey engines — the massive machines used to haul fallen timbers — often ignited piles of logging waste drying out on the forest floor. Companies regularly ignored even basic fire safety precautions, and routinely forced crews to work during hot and dry periods, all in the interest of profits. Blaming Wobblies instead of reforming their harvesting practices was more convenient.

Indeed, the reality was that Wobblies weren’t responsible, and they often even worked on firefighting crews to stop the fires. Once, when a fire broke out during a 1916 strike at a Montana mine, Wobblies abandoned the picket lines to assist in containing the blaze.

By the 1920s, the IWW’s numbers in the Northwest woods had started to decline. But the tendency to blame radical activists for the Northwest’s fires persisted. In the 1930s, Communist Party activists were sometimes blamed for starting fires. In the 1960s it was antiwar protesters. In the 1980s, rumors circulated in logging towns that members of the radical environmental group Earth First! regularly set fires. And today, antifa gets the blame.

As in the past, these rumors do damage by unnecessarily stoking fears and anxieties of activists fighting for meaningful change. These rumors also shift our attention away from the real cause of wildfire. Most foresters and ecologists believe that the large and destructive fires of recent years are the result of climate change and poor forest management. If we’re serious about reducing wildfire risk then we’d all be wise to spend far less time framing radical activists as agents of destruction — they aren’t — and far more time adopting better environmental policies and practices.