Firestorm of ru­mors prom­ises new calamity

The Times-Tribune - - OP-ED - NI­CHOLAS D. KRISTOF Com­men­tary NI­CHOLAS D. KRISTOF writes for The New York Times.

YAMHILL, Ore. — The West has been burn­ing, and one fire reached about 5 miles from the Most Beau­ti­ful Farm in the World, where I grew up in the rolling hills west of Port­land.

I told my mom to get ready to evac­u­ate in a hurry. She replied that the im­por­tant things to save weren’t doc­u­ments but our farm dogs — one of whom is wary of ve­hi­cles for fear that the next stop will be the vet.

In the end the lo­cal fire was ex­tin­guished be­cause of the heroic work of a lo­cal fire depart­ment made up mostly of vol­un­teers. They were bol­stered with a del­uge of food, drinks and grat­i­tude from the com­mu­nity.

This was the best of ru­ral Amer­ica, and it was fol­lowed Thurs­day night by what seemed the best sound in the world: rain pat­ter­ing on the roof. Still, the fires fill me with dis­quiet for three closely re­lated rea­sons.

First is the fear that these fires and their ac­com­pa­ny­ing smoke rep­re­sent the new nor­mal. Re­searchers es­ti­mate that air pol­lu­tion in China causes 1.6 mil­lion deaths a year, and smoke from fires in the West may even­tu­ally cause res­pi­ra­tory diseases that claim more lives than the fires them­selves.

Sec­ond is frus­tra­tion at the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s paral­y­sis. Just a cou­ple of months ago, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump rushed to send in un­wanted fed­eral agents to deal with protests and trash fires in down­town Port­land, but he seems in­dif­fer­ent when mil­lions of acres and thou­sands of homes burn across the West.

“It’ll start get­ting cooler,” he ad­vised, and that seems to be his strat­egy for fires, just as “it’ll go away” was his strat­egy for manag­ing the coro­n­avirus.

Third is the re­ac­tion of so many or­di­nary cit­i­zens in Ore­gon and around the coun­try: In­stead of see­ing these mam­moth for­est fires as a wake-up call to the per­ils of a warm­ing planet, they be­lieve and spread wild con­spir­acy the­o­ries sug­gest­ing that these fires were the work of shad­owy left­ist ar­son­ists.

Trump and Fox News, along with var­i­ous rightwing web­sites, have nur­tured a panic about the an­tifas­cists known as an­tifa, so now we have ground­less ru­mors that for­est fires are be­ing set by an­tifa or Black Lives Mat­ter protesters.

These con­spir­acy the­o­ries aren’t just com­ing from fringe fig­ures. Michael Cross, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for at­tor­ney gen­eral of Ore­gon, al­leged in a Face­book post: “I’ve heard of at least 14 peo­ple in­volved in start­ing these fires and this is just in the last 12 hours . ... Sounds to me like do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism.”

Like­wise, a failed Repub­li­can Se­nate can­di­date in Ore­gon, Paul J. Romero Jr., falsely tweeted that six an­tifa ac­tivists had been ar­rested for ar­son.

Let’s be clear that there is zero ev­i­dence that po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ists have set any fires. The FBI called the re­ports un­true and pleaded with the public not to spread ru­mors that “take valu­able re­sources away [from] lo­cal fire and po­lice agen­cies.” Three sher­iff ’s of­fices in Ore­gon is­sued sim­i­lar state­ments.

“STOP. SPREAD­ING. RU­MORS,” begged the Dou­glas County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice, which added that “our 911 dis­patch­ers and pro­fes­sional staff are be­ing over­run” with calls based on false re­ports.

There should be no mys­tery about what ac­tu­ally caused the fires to be­come so dan­ger­ous: dry con­di­tions ex­ac­er­bated by cli­mate change cou­pled with an un­usual wind­storm. (At least 13 Ore­gon fires were started when the wind­storm downed power lines, Wil­lamette Week re­ported.) The sci­en­tific con­sen­sus is over­whelm­ing: Higher tem­per­a­tures dry out forests, cre­at­ing a risk that we are en­ter­ing an age of “megafire.”

Back in 2000, the First Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment warned that the North­west faced in­creased risk of fire dan­ger, and it is one of the most dis­cussed con­se­quences of cli­mate change.

The con­spir­acy the­o­ries cre­ate real per­ils. Some cit­i­zens in Ore­gon set up armed road­blocks to look for ar­son­ists. A cou­ple pho­tograph­ing fires in the town of Mo­lalla some­how pro­voked ru­mors of an­tifa ar­son­ists, prompt­ing gun­men to search for them.

“Ap­par­ently I came very close to be­ing shot by a group of ‘vig­i­lantes,’” Jen­nifer Paulsen tweeted after­ward.

I’ve seen mili­tias set up armed check­points in coun­tries like Ye­men and Su­dan, but I never ex­pected to see them in my beloved home state. In Mult­nomah County, the sher­iff warned that peo­ple could be ar­rested for set­ting up il­le­gal check­points, and Tues­day, sher­iff ’s deputies is­sued crim­i­nal ci­ta­tions to three men for es­tab­lish­ing a road­block.

This is an echo of some­thing I wrote about in June: a hys­te­ria in ru­ral towns that they were about to be at­tacked by an­tifa, lead­ing cit­i­zens to pull out their guns and gather to fight back. When the in­vaders never showed up, the vig­i­lantes some­times re­garded this as vin­di­ca­tion: They had scared off the at­tack­ers.

All this ru­mor­mon­ger­ing leaves me feel­ing that the so­cial fab­ric is unraveling, as if the shared un­der­stand­ing of re­al­ity that is the ba­sis for any so­ci­ety is erod­ing. The ug­li­ness also raises a ques­tion: If we see this unraveling now when the science is clear and the ru­mors are so man­i­festly ground­less, then what might hap­pen in Novem­ber if the elec­tion re­sults are close? Brace your­selves.

NOAH BERGER / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Above, Charles Chavira, left, and Thomas Hen­ney watch a smoke plume from a nearby wild­fire roll over a vine­yard Aug. 20 in Healds­burg, Sonoma County, Cal­i­for­nia. Left, a worker helps pre­pare a smo­keen­shrouded evac­u­a­tion cen­ter Sept. 10 at the Clacka­mas County Fair­grounds in Canby, Ore­gon.

KRISTINA BARKER / THE NEW YORK TIMES

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