At least four people have been arrested on suspicion of arson in incidents connected to the massive wildfires now blazing across the western United States, according to authorities in California, Oregon, and Washington.
A number of false reports surfaced this week, pinning several fires on “antifascist activists”—reports that, the FBI says, turned out to be untrue upon investigation by federal, state, and local authorities, despite a flood of reports.
Reports that extremists are setting wildfires in Oregon are untrue. Help us stop the spread of misinformation by only sharing information from trusted, official sources. pic.twitter.com/ENc4c3kjep
— FBI Portland (@FBIPortland) September 11, 2020
Those rumors are believed to have stemmed from a tweet from the Portland, Oregon, police department warning protesters, who have been holding protests in the city every night for the past three months. The Portland PD warned demonstrators earlier this week that setting fires could lead to much larger, more destructive blazes.
“To those attending the demonstration tonight: Keep in mind the immediate risk the use of fire poses to community members. Since fire danger is very high right now due to high winds and the current dry climate, fire will spread quickly and could affect many lives,” the department noted on Tuesday.
“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” the Oregon Department of Forestry confirmed to The New York Times.
But several state authorities now say that at least four of the many fires that have destroyed millions of acres of forest in California, Oregon, and Washington, are suspicious, and they’ve arrested at least four people in connection to suspected incidents of arson.
Michael Jarrod Bakkela, a transient living in the Oregon woods, was arrested late this week “on two counts of arson, 15 counts of criminal mischief and 14 counts of reckless endangerment,” according to Oregon Live. Bakkela is allegedly responsible for setting one of two major wildfires in Oregon; the fires have now merged, killing at least 24 people, leaving hundreds homeless, and torching at least 5,700 acres of precious forest land.
Bakkela’s alleged fire is likely responsible for the deaths of at least two people, according to Oregon authorities.
The California Highway Patrol arrested a 37-year-old woman, Anita Esquivel, for intentionally starting several blazes along Highway 101, according to KION Los Angeles. Police do not yet have a motive for Esquivel’s alleged arson, but they do not believe she is connected to any Antifa-type organization.
The Washington State Patrol tweeted on Thursday that they nabbed two suspected firebugs setting small fires in dry grass at the intersection of two state highways.
We got another one! Great job Trooper Morefield. A pedestrian decided to match light the grass at SR-512 and SR-7. Citizen observed and alerted 911. After a short foot chase, one is in custody and on his way to jail. #Justice #Beatrooper @CentralPierce pic.twitter.com/ePJMHU4tUd
— Trooper Ryan Burke (@wspd1pio) September 10, 2020
Although Puyallup, Washington, police and Washington State Troopers have yet to confirm that a third arrest in Washington state is connected to wildfires there, local news reports that the two organizations arrested an individual with the same name as a man who posted a Facebook Live earlier this week claiming to have started a “large brush fire” that shut down another state highway.
Fires in Oregon, Washington, and California continue to rage Saturday, though authorities in all three states say that better, cooler weather expected this weekend will aid in getting some of the blazes under control. Around half a million people have been displaced in Oregon, per CNN, and tens of thousands are evacuating in Washington and California.
“As of Thursday, more than 100 wildfires across 12 Western states burned more than 4.3 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center,” per CNN. “That’s nearly 7,000 square miles, or roughly the size of New Jersey.”