As historically destructive fires rage throughout Oregon, some individuals have taken to the internet to voice their concerns and spread unsupported theories that arsonists are to blame.
Others have gone as far as directly calling the Linn County Sheriff's Office to report their concerns or to fact-check information they’ve seen online.
But Linn County Sheriff Jim Yon said those reports, and the rapid spreading of misinformation in general, is harming the cause, not helping it.
“People on social media, they’ve already got it as an arson or this or that. They haven’t even looked at what the determination of the fire is yet,” Yon said. “We’re seeing it in Lane County and Marion County, and I get it. But it is time to stop — it’s not helping anything and all it’s doing is having people call us and fill up our lines even more when we’re trying to get stuff done.”
There is one fire in Linn County — a 10- to 15-acre blaze that started about 7 a.m. Friday morning on Bureau of Land Management timberland southeast of Crawfordsville — that is being investigated by the Oregon State Police as suspicious. That fire was quickly contained by the Oregon Department of Forestry with assistance from other agencies.
But Yon said it's far too early to presume the Brush Creek fire or any others in the area were deliberately set.
"I know people are upset and scared and all that, but we need to be patient and do it right," he said.
The sheriff stressed that rather than relying on Facebook comment sections or other secondhand sources for information, folks should look to the Linn County website, as well as sites from the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for the most accurate, timely information.
“To hear it from those sources is best because you know it’s coming straight from us,” Yon said. “You know we’re going to try to be as accurate as we can be.”
Friday morning, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page posted an update that began with, "Please Stop spreading rumors!"
The post was in response to a smattering of reports that a fire near West Brush Creek Road, just south of Crawfordsville, was started by arsonists.
“Please do not speculate on the cause of the fire because it has not been determined. It is not helping anyone. It is only scaring people,” the post continued.
Within an hour, the post had received nearly 200 comments and been shared more than 900 times.
The Sheriff's Office has a call center set up with information lines, and Friday morning those lines were flooded with calls from people in the Brownsville area who had heard from secondhand sources that they needed to evacuate immediately. That was not true.
“People heard rumors, so they posted. Everybody starts calling in here, and it just bogs up the lines for people who really do have questions or issues or problems,” Yon said.
Yon knows that most of those who are calling or posting information are doing so with the best of intentions and simply trying to help others. But when that information isn’t accurate, it simply causes chaos, confusion and difficulties for the public agencies and relief crews around the state.
“From here to Clackamas County, everybody is experiencing it,” Yon said. “This is a large event and it’s affecting a lot of people over a huge area. Confusion is just a part of it, it’s just something we have to get through. But if we can help a little bit here, a little bit there, it adds up and just makes things easier for everybody.”
The Portland office of the FBI issued a similar appeal on Friday.
"FBI Portland and local law enforcement agencies have been receiving reports that extremists are responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon. With our state and local partners, the FBI has investigated several such reports and found them to be untrue," the Portland FBI office said in a news release.
"Conspiracy theories and misinformation take valuable resources away 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."
Reporter Alex Paul contributed to this story.
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