As firefighters in Northern California battle ongoing wildfires, the Sonoma County sheriff is facing a different battle: fighting misinformation about how the fires started.
Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano issued a statement Thursday on Facebook calling out Immigrations and Customs Enforcement for spreading “inaccurate, inflammatory” information about the wildfires and about who ― if anyone ― had caused them. Cal Fire has not yet determined what started the blazes.
“ICE attacked the Sheriff’s Office in the midst of the largest natural disaster this county has ever experienced,” read the Sonoma sheriff’s post. “Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, many people have lost their homes and 23 people [in Sonoma] have died from this firestorm. ICE’s misleading statement stirs fear in some of our community members who are already exhausted and scared.”
ICE had released a statement Wednesday on its website, warning of Sonoma County’s “repeated releases of [a] dangerous criminal alien,” naming Jesus Gonzalez, a homeless man whom Sonoma officials had arrested earlier this week on suspicion of starting a small fire in a park.
Giordano had addressed this arrest at a news conference Tuesday, stating: “There’s a story out there that [Gonzalez] is the arsonist for these fires. That is not the case. There’s no indication he is related to these fires at all.”
Giordano stated that Gonzalez is known to sheriff’s deputies.
“He frequents Maxwell Park. He’s been known to sleep there,” Giordano said. “He was walking away from a small fire, [deputies] stopped him, he had a fire extinguisher and a lighter with him. He said he started the fire to warm himself up.”
On Thursday, Giordano told HuffPost: “The fire was less than a quarter acre. There is no such thing as a safe fire, but it wasn’t near homes and was put out quickly.”
He added, “I’d rather not fight with the federal government while trying to put out wildfires.”
The exchange between ICE and the sheriff’s office comes as right-wing website Breitbart and other sites posted misleading news stories this week suggesting that the Northern California wildfires were started by Gonzalez, whom they called an “illegal alien.”
Breitbart cited ICE’s release in a Thursday news story, in which the headline read: “ICE Director: Suspected Wine Country Arsonist Is Illegal Alien Mexican National.” Buried halfway down in the article was a line clarifying that “it is not clear what role the fires Gonzales [sic] allegedly set played in the overall disaster.”
The article was shared nearly 50,000 times on Facebook, according to an automated ticker on the website. It was one of Breitbart’s numerous misleading articles on the topic that have been picked up by other right-wing outlets, including InfoWars, Drudge Report and MediaInfidels.
“I don’t feel at all like we implied he started those fires,” ICE public affairs officer James Schwab told HuffPost earlier on Thursday before the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office posted its statement.
“Other news organizations took that in a different angle,” he added. “We can’t control what media organizations do with our statements. It happens on both sides of the fence all the time.”
HuffPost reached out to ICE for further comment after the sheriff’s Thursday statement about ICE but had not received a response at the time of this posting.
Casting blame has added to the burden on undocumented immigrants in Northern California, who have been hit hard by the wildfires. Local officials have warned that some undocumented families were afraid to go to evacuation shelters in fear of encountering law enforcement and possibly being deported. Many undocumented Latino immigrants may also lose their jobs, as vineyards in the area have been damaged.
“From a public service and safety perspective, this kind of fake news is devastating to this community,” Alegría De La Cruz, chief deputy county counselor of Sonoma County, told HuffPost. “We’re having a hard time getting people from the immigrant community to come out ― with people in uniform and from federal government there, people don’t trust they’ll be safe. This kind of news story is devastating in terms of people getting access to benefits they’re entitled to.”
Sonoma County had put out a statement on social media earlier this week saying authorities would not ask people for immigration status at shelters, telling them to “keep your families safe.”