How people misbehaving contributed to wildfire chaos in California, Oregon

Mike Chapman Redding Record SearchlightPublished 6:54 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020One allegedly started a fire while a

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One allegedly started a fire while a larger, deadly blaze bore down on his neighbors. Another let his burn piles get away from him, then allegedly pulled a knife on the crew that showed up to contain his careless mistake.

A California man allegedly fired a handgun and struck a driver in the middle of an evacuation. In Oregon, a neighbor started baseless rumors that Antifa activists were setting fires, prompting a viral explosion of false recriminations that left local sheriffs pleading for people to stop with the nonsense already.

And that's not even accounting for the looters. While natural disasters always bring out the best in communities, the fires in Oregon and California this summer have also produced a rogue's gallery of bad behavior.

More than just a distraction, these cases have hindered fire crews and law enforcement from their life-saving work, emergency officials say.

In one of the most serious cases, authorities arrested a Southern Oregon man last week on suspicion of arson after deputies allege he started a fire in a residential area while firefighters and officers already were focused on another pressing fire that was growing in size.

Oregon man accused of lighting fire while another burns

Residents told deputies they saw 41-year-old Michael Jarrod Bakkela lighting a fire behind houses in a Phoenix residential neighborhood as the Almeda Fire was sending up smoke plumes between Ashland and Medford along the Interstate 5 corridor.

Jackson County deputies and troopers from Oregon State Police found Bakkela standing next to a large fire that was threatening homes. Officers said Bakkela denied starting the fire. 

Bakkela, whom the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office described as homeless, was arrested for violating probation and later charged with two counts of arson separate from the Almeda Fire investigation. He’s also facing 15 counts of criminal mischief and 14 counts of reckless endangering, the sheriff’s office said.

'Unnecessary and senseless' shooting during evacuations

In another example, as the Slater Fire roared near the California-Oregon state line last Tuesday and evacuations were underway, investigators say James Ryan Tivis, 36, of Happy Camp was outside his home with his daughter when he thought a passing motorist was driving recklessly and could have hurt his daughter. 

So, Siskiyou County Undersheriff Karl Houtman said Monday, Tivis fired a handgun toward the driver. Either the bullet or a piece of the vehicle hit the man behind the wheel, injuring his arm, Houtman said.

“This unnecessary and senseless incident was during the emergency fire evacuations and diverted law enforcement personnel away from their life-saving efforts of evacuating citizens from a raging fire,” Houtman said.

Deputies arrested Tivis for investigation of attempted murder and being a felon with a gun and ammunition. They had to make the 70-mile drive to Yreka at a critical time to book him into the county jail.

Wildfire maps: Here are 7 online fire maps Californians can use to stay in-the-know

Cal Fire: Man burning garbage pulls knife on firefighters 

Another incident was connected to a close call, but not a major wildfire.

Firefighters from the local fire department in Hayfork in tinder-dry Trinity County were starting to hose down two illegal garbage pile fires when they were threatened by 59-year-old Darryll Russell — who allegedly had started them — a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Department said.

“When firefighters attempted to extinguish the fires, Russell threatened them by cursing, acting in a threatening manner, and brandishing a knife,” says a statement sent by Cal Fire spokeswoman Cheryl Buliavac. “As a result, the extinguishment of the fires was delayed, further threatening the community of Hayfork.”

Deputies from the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office took Russell to jail on a warrant with Cal Fire recommending a slate of charges: brandishing a weapon at firefighters with intent to threaten and intimidate, illegally burning during a burn ban, illegally burning garbage and delaying firefighters from extinguish a fire.

Looters target evacuated zones

Of course, the summer fires and its wide-scale evacuations have left thousands of homes unguarded and led to the all-too-familiar cases of looting.

Law enforcement officials say they're always is on the lookout for looters under such conditions.

In California, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said at a recent briefing that his department is receiving mutual aid from law enforcement agencies across Northern California to conduct security patrols in areas under evacuation in the West Zone of the North Complex, originally called the Bear Fire.

In fire updates Sunday and Monday, Honea said eight people have been arrested for illegally entering evacuated areas.

A Sacramento man was arrested Sunday with a $100,000 generator stolen in 2018 that he was using on a marijuana grow he was cultivating.

News: Here's how much federal land fires have burned this summer

Another man was caught in an evacuated area with 30 marijuana plants that deputies believe were stolen from a pot garden.

"I hope that people understand that we're serious when we tell you that if you shouldn't be in that area and if you're in that area and engage in illegal activity, we're going to do our utmost to capture you and hold you fully accountable under the law," Honea said.

Butte County deputies said Tuesday six more people were arrested after they were found in evacuated areas.

The sheriff implored residents to evacuate when ordered to do so. Having to rescue people who stay behind as flames enter their neighborhood takes time away from crews trying to save homes.

“We have seen far too often in this county people fail to abide by those orders and tragic consequences were the result,” Honea said.

Elsewhere, Marion County Sheriff's Office deputies arrested two Oregon men who they said were looting from homes in an evacuated wildfire zone.

Anthony Travis Bodda, 21, and Alexander Justin Jones, 36, were arrested last Thursday on multiple felonies following a wild chase where the suspects tried to get away by driving onto and through a golf course, causing $1,500 in damage.

Officers found stolen property in the suspects' van.

"We will continue to patrol evacuated areas and do our best to protect these areas from criminal behavior," Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast said.

Northwest fires not set by anti-fascist activists

A fact check by USA TODAY has debunked rumors spreading on social media that wildfires in Oregon and Washington were set by antifascist activists known as antifa.

One Facebook user falsely said in a post that seven antifa members were arrested for starting fires and included a direct message alleging a logger found a group throwing molotov cocktails on his property, according to USA TODAY.

Another Facebook user included a video purporting to show smoking equipment with signs that said "Black Lives Matter" and "Spend Your Privilege" as "proof" of antifa intentionally setting fires.

News: Officials douse rumors of far-right Proud Boys, far-left Antifa setting fires in Oregon

State and federal law enforcement officials say those rumors are false.

An Oregon Department of Forestry spokeswoman told The New York Times the agency has not seen “any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign."

An FBI spokeswoman told The Oregonian that reports of extremists setting wildfires are "untrue."

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office said on Facebook rumors are untrue about antifa members being arrested for arson. The Medford Police Department also said it has not arrested political extremists for arson.

Antifa itself is a moniker for antifascists, rather than a single coordinated group, per The Washington Post. 

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Mike Chapman is a reporter and photographer for the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash. Follow him on Twitter @mikechapman_RS. Subscribe today!
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