Citing no actual evidence, a website known for floating conservative-leaning conspiracy theories has reported that Mexican drug cartels are suspected of deliberately setting the multiple wildfires that ravaged wine country and beyond last week, all in order to gain a strategic advantage over the legal marijuana industry. Also, Breitbart has now chimed in with an entirely false story claiming that ICE had issued a detainer request for an illegal immigrant suspected of setting the fires.
The first story, from the site Got News, suggests that "Law enforcement officials and legal marijuana industry leaders alike are beginning to suspect the Mexican drug cartels played a role in starting the deadly fires," though the story goes on not to quote a single source who has any such suspicion. As Snopes points out in its official debunking, the story simply links to earlier pieces in the New York Times and NBC News that discussed the impact of the fires on the legal marijuana industry, as well as the wine industry, since the two are beginning to share land in Sonoma County.
The Got News piece goes on to say that the cartels, who are "infamous for their ruthless tactics," "certainly have the means to pull of an attack like this." And perhaps most egregiously, the story claims "While massive wildfires are far from uncommon in California’s forests, they usually occur in December and January, not October." We all know this is flatly untrue, and October is peak fire season.
Got News is a website run by Chuck C. Johnson, a man whom the Washington Post was referring to as a "far-right mega-troll" two years ago when he was banned from Twitter for doxxing two journalists and seeking funds to "take out" a Black Lives Matter activist. Currently on the site's front page are several stories implying a conspiracy in the Las Vegas mass shooting two weeks ago involving the Mandalay Bay security guard who was shot.
The Breitbart story, which is sort of like a game of fake-news telephone, takes a report of an arrest of a homeless man in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat an arrest that happened on Sunday, October 15 and claims that it is connected to arson suspicions in the wildfires. Indeed, a 29-year-old man named Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, who is "well known to law enforcement" and "lives under a bridge nearby" according to the Press Democrat, was arrested Sunday on suspicion of arson, but this was for a small fire that authorities believe Gonzalez set on Sunday, October 15, in Maxwell Farms Regional Park, "because he was cold." Breitbart then goes on to find that Gonzalez had an ICE detainer request on his record in May 2014 that Sonoma County did not honor because it is a "sanctuary county," and falsely claims that Gonzalez is a suspect in causing the wildfires, which sparked simultaneously or in quick succession on October 8 and 9 in eight separate counties, some of them hundreds of miles apart.
The problem with stories like this is that a) they have a veneer of credulity, and b) people don't read very carefully or do enough to question what they read or check upon sources, they just share them as fact. I just spotted a comment referring to Gonzalez as the "firebug" responsible for the wildfires on a Mercury News story about the impact on wineries.
While authorities likely will not pin down exact causes for the fires for many weeks or months, early suspicions fell on sparking power lines likely colliding with wind-blown trees during a night of intense Diablo winds, and Cal Fire statistics from 2015 showed that 76 percent of wildfires were ignited by power lines. As the Associated Press reports, the first lawsuit has been filed against PG&E by a pair of homeowners from Santa Rosa whose home burned in the Tubbs Fire, blaming the utility for negligence keeping vegetation trimmed around its power lines.