On Sept. 11, 2020, the same day the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a statement dismissing rumors that leftist activists were starting wildfires in Oregon, a sheriff in Washington state sent a very different message to other members of law enforcement.
“One of the methods Antifa is using to start fire’s,is to take a mason jar with tinder placed inside the jar, put it in brush with the lid open, so the hot sun light will create a slow start which allows them to be out of the area before the smoke appears [sic],” Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer wrote in an email to officials throughout the state.
The email, obtained by the government transparency group Property Of The People and reviewed by The Daily Beast, came as wildfires and misinformation swept the Pacific Northwest. Rumors like these, which falsely accused anti-fascists or Black Lives Matter activists of starting the wildfires after a summer of rage over racist police violence, were not without consequence. On at least one occasion, a family was attacked during a camping trip by Washingtonians who wrongly believed their converted camper-bus to be an “antifa” transport vehicle. Songer’s email blasted the bus-owner as “antifa/BLM,” months after their harrowing story made national news.
To his knowledge, he told The Daily Beast in an interview, his department has done nothing to correct the record.
Baseless rumors about leftists starting wildfires were predictable, especially as fire seasons worsen with climate change, experts say. But those hoaxes take on a new power when embraced by law enforcement.
Mike Caulfield, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, said the narrative first gained momentum in Australia in January 2020, when conservatives wrongly accused environmentalists of starting a series of devastating blazes.
American conservatives watched closely.
“A lot of people on the political right here were retweeting and supporting the theory that the Australian fires were created by arsonists, and in some cases going as far as to blame climate activists,” Caulfield told The Daily Beast.
Those hoaxes were shared by figures on the political right in the U.S. who, after the George Floyd protest wave took off, repurposed the rumors, swapping Australian environmentalists for American leftists.
“We saw this narrative coming in January. We knew it was coming, in some form, in the fall,” during the U.S. wildfire season, Caulfield said.
The rumors went well beyond mere chatter. While photographing the flames in Estacada, Oregon, last September, a photojournalist was held up at gunpoint by vigilantes who accused him of being a “looter,” as the Guardian reported. A Black evacuee of a burning Oregon neighborhood was stopped at an unsanctioned roadblock by a group of armed men who accused her of being “not from around here.” Three men were later arrested for allegedly blocking roads and demanding identification from drivers near fires.
Ryan Shapiro, executive director of Property Of The People, said the rumors could put people at risk.
“Especially when so much of the far right is on high alert for supposed subversives, sheriffs spreading baseless rumors about antifa puts progressive activists and the general public in the crosshairs,” Shapiro told The Daily Beast.
The most heated rumors were a continuation of hoaxes from earlier in the year, which falsely claimed anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter activists were bussing into targeted residential neighborhoods to commit murder and arson.
Sometimes, police were publicly implicated in the spread of those rumors. On Sept. 11, the day of Songer’s email, a video showed a sheriff’s deputy in nearby Clackamas County, Oregon, blaming the fires on anti-fascists.
“Antifa motherfuckers are out causing hell, and there’s a lot of lives at stake. And there’s a lot of people’s property at stake because these guys got some vendetta,” the Clackamas deputy told a civilian. The civilian had previously shown him a picture of gas cans in a bush, which he said was evidence of anti-fascists starting fires in Oregon. (The man said he did not know in which state the pictures of gas cans had been taken.)
At a high level, law enforcement has attempted to combat the hoaxes.
“FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon,” read the FBI’s bulletin sent on the same day as Sheriff Songer’s email. “With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports 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. Please help our entire community by only sharing validated information from official sources.”
The Clackamas County deputy was suspended over the video. But Songer, whose county borders on Oregon, made more incendiary comments about the fires in an email with the subject line “Black Life’s Matter / Antifa information.” His claims about “Antifa” using “mason jars” for arson was sent to members of his department, the Washington State Patrol, the Skamania County Sheriff, the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, and the Goldendale Police Department.
The Goldendale and Skamania departments did not return requests for comment.
Bingen-White Salmon Police Department Chief Mike Hepner told The Daily Beast that, while he did not recall the email, his department had never seen any evidence to support its claims.
Sergeant Darren Wright, a public information officer for the Washington State Patrol, told The Daily Beast that the WSP does not typically investigate fires, but that he’d reached out to a statewide fire investigator who was skeptical of Songer’s claims. The fire investigator “said [mason jars] would be an unlikely way of starting a fire and he doesn’t know of any incidents where that occurred,” Wright said.
The email also reached the Yakima County, Washington, sheriff, who forwarded it to two officers with the message “FYI” on Sept. 14. A different member of the Yakima County office had previously displayed hostility toward perceived “antifa,” according to emails obtained by Property of the People. In June 2020, Edward Rivenbark, a Yakima County Sheriff reserve deputy, emailed a video to a former reserve deputy.
“This is funny, you must check it out! :D,” Rivenbark wrote. “Patriots kicking the shit out of Antifa, enjoy!”
The video contained footage of uniformed members of the Proud Boys brawling with leftists during a notorious June 30, 2018, rally in Portland, Oregon. The video, set to P.O.D.’s “Here Comes The Boom,” included slowed-down footage of Proud Boy leader Ethan Nordean punching someone. Nordean is currently facing multiple charges for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, where he allegedly served as the Proud Boys’ leader on the ground.
Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell told The Daily Beast that he had forwarded Songer’s email for informational purposes, and only to two officers. “It was not followed up and no research done into the veracity of the email’s information,” Udell said. “It had been filed away into the dustbins of history not likely to be seen again” if not for a records request.
Udell said his department had been unaware of Rivenbark’s email, but upon learning of it, found it to have violated department standards. “As you likely suspected, such an email does not even get close to professional standards. We shall deal with the issue,” Udell said.
Rivenbark did not respond to a request for comment.
When reached for comment about his own email, Sheriff Songer asked whether this reporter was “antifa” and declined to speak at length, suggesting that this article would likely be “to the left, and if that’s the case, we probably don’t have a lot to talk about.”
“It is my job to enquire your position on this stuff,” Songer told The Daily Beast.
He said the email’s contents were “information that I had received at the time. I’m not going to give out the source, but they were concerned about that.” He said he never received actual evidence that anti-fascists or Black Lives Matter activists had started any fires.
Last year’s ruinous fire season is already at risk of being outdone in 2021. A climate change-fueled cocktail of extreme heat and drought have left much of the western U.S. in tinderbox conditions this summer, with a new rash of fires already threatening Oregon and Washington. In Klickitat County, alone, a new fire grew to 30 acres on Monday, prompting “get ready” evacuation warnings. As of Monday, a water shortage forced local firefighters to make a 24-mile round trip to resupply, KOIN reported.
Songer’s email also accused a woman of being an “Antifa/BLM” agitator, months after those same false claims had led to her family being attacked on a camping trip.
“The white bus being driven by suspected Antifa/BLM has been spotted at events in Sequim, Seattle, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and now Moses Lake,” Songer wrote, alongside the bus’s license plate number. “The bus appears to be an older model timber crew bus. The registered owner of the bus is Shannon Lee Lowe with an address of [Lowe’s address].”
Had Songer even googled Lowe’s name, he would have discovered that she and her family were surrounded by vigilantes during a camping trip in June, in what Lowe described to the Peninsula Daily News as something like “a hostage situation.”
As a crowd formed and took their pictures, one man jumped inside their bus.
“He said he thought we were a part of this terrorist group and we had come to town and were going to burn and destroy it, and he had come to protect it,” Lowe told the outlet.
She could not be reached for comment on this story. The Bingen-White Salmon Police Department and the Washington State Patrol, which received Songer’s email, told The Daily Beast they had no evidence supporting Songer’s claims about Lowe.
Asked about the email, Songer said he hadn’t known Lowe’s family was harassed, and asked for the contents of his own email to be read over the phone. Upon hearing it, Songer noted that his message could not have motivated the attack, because he sent it months afterward.
“What information we give out—after this lady and her family was attacked—we give out possible information to prevent crime from being [sic] occurred, occurring, so I’m not sure what you’re going from. I’m sure it’s going to be leaning to the left,” he said.
Songer said that, to his knowledge, his department had neither taken action against Lowe based on the email, nor made any subsequent efforts to correct his characterization of her.
Songer describes himself as a “constitutional” sheriff, part of a right-wing movement that incorrectly claims sheriffs are the highest form of law enforcement in their counties, overriding local police, state police, and even federal authorities. The movement appears to have gained momentum in the COVID era, with at least two Nevada counties spending thousands of public dollars to join “constitutional” sheriffs organization, and two Texas counties hosting events for that organization. (The events featured a former leader of a white nationalist group.)
Songer made his own headlines last month when he announced his intent to “arrest, detain and recommend prosecution [of]” any elected officials or government workers who attempt to enforce future COVID-19 restrictions. Claiming that the United States and Washington constitutions are founded on Christianity, Songer claimed to have sworn an oath as the “Supreme Judge of the Universe” as sheriff.
Local health officials pushed back on his plans to arrest people for enforcing safety measures during an ongoing pandemic.
“While I feel my staff have been admirable in their ability to brush off these threats, threats of this nature coming from the sheriff himself are creating an environment where staff fear for their livelihood as public health employees,” the county’s public health director wrote Klickitat County commissioners in an email.