UPDATE: Sept. 21 — At a campaign rally over the weekend in Enumclaw, Washington, Loren Culp’s campaign manager Christopher Gergen explicitly claimed that antifa is involved in starting wildfires in the West.
“I don’t hear silence tonight,” Gergen said before introducing Culp to the stage. “I hear people that are ready to stand tall and be seen and speak loudly to be heard, to let the communists know and the antifa know and [Black Lives Matter] know that you can’t just roll into our state and burn down our forests and destroy our cities.”
PREVIOUSLY: Loren Culp, the Republican nominee running to unseat Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), is pushing a conspiracy theory that many of the wildfires raging in the Pacific Northwest are the result of a coordinated arson campaign.
In a 13-minute campaign video posted to Culp’s YouTube late Wednesday, the gubernatorial candidate talks with two homeowners in a neighborhood that apparently was charred by the Cold Springs fire, near Omak.
“I know statewide there’s about 600,000 acres that have burned,” Culp said. “And a lot of them have apparently been set intentionally ― like this one. A couple people have been caught so far. Hopefully they investigate the heck out of this.”
“It’s something bigger,” one of the homeowners responded.
“To have that many fires set all over the state, it’s gotta be coordinated,” Culp added.
Culp and his campaign manager, Christopher Gergen, had a similar discussion in a Facebook Live video on Tuesday.
“There’s word ― and I don’t know if you can speak to this ― there is word that these fires were set intentionally,” Gergen said. “That it wasn’t due to lightning strike. Do you have any insight into that?”
“When I talked to the firefighter and the rancher in Okanagan County, he said that it had been set intentionally,” Culp responded, without elaborating.
Culp provided no evidence of an organized effort, and HuffPost found no reporting to indicate that the Cold Springs wildfire or any other blaze in Okanogan County, on the Canadian border, were the result of suspected arson.
Washington State Patrol reported arresting two men earlier this month for allegedly starting brush fires, both in the Tacoma area, about 150 miles southwest of Okanogan County, and a third man was arrested on suspicion of arson in a wildfire near Eugene, Oregon. But multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Okanogan County sheriff, have been forced to dispel rumors swirling online of an organized arson attack by antifa, an umbrella term for loosely affiliated anti-fascist groups, to cause catastrophic blazes.
Asked if Culp was parroting internet falsehoods, Gergen said in an email Thursday that “Mr. Culp didn’t say Antifa or any other group ― far right or far left ― set the fires. Individuals did. And this has been widely reported ― even in the [mainstream media].”
Gergen told HuffPost that Culp “was sharing what he’d read and heard from credible sources” in fire-affected communities. Gergen also leaned into the conspiracy that the fires were the result of a coordinated, intentional effort.
“Multiple arson attempts on this scale isn’t typical,” he said. “In fact, no one can remember a time when we had this many arson attempts. That seems coordinated. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it certainly seems that way.”
He called HuffPost “ridiculous” for inquiring about the claims and accused this reporter of “trying to spin Mr. Culp’s statements to make him look bad or uninformed.”
This month, hundreds of wildfires have consumed a combined 5 million acres in California, Oregon and Washington. At least 33 people have died and tens of thousands of residents have been displaced. Climate change is making wildfires in the West worse by driving up temperatures, fueling drought and drying out vegetation.
“At a time when Washington communities are being devastated by fires and working to defeat COVID, we need to be focused on stopping the spread of fires and the virus, not the reckless conspiracy theories of Loren Culp,” Inslee campaign spokesperson James Singer said Thursday.
Inslee, who centered his failed 2020 presidential bid on combating the worsening climate crisis, has in recent days highlighted the role climate change plays in driving extreme wildfires. In an open letter to Donald Trump this week, Inslee slammed the president for his denial of climate change and refusal to address it, which he said “will accelerate devastating wildfires like those you’re seeing today.”
Culp, a vocal Trump supporter and self-proclaimed “law and order” candidate, is the police chief of the small northeast Washington town of Republic. He received national attention in 2018 when he announced that he would not enforce a voter-approved state initiative to tighten gun laws, including raising the age requirement to purchase a semiautomatic rifle to 21.
More recently, he’s opposed Inslee’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and mask mandates and dismissed the link between climate change and devastating wildfires.
“In the ’70s there was the big scare about global cooling,” he said in a Facebook Live video Wednesday. “It was on the national news. Global cooling, we’re all going to freeze to death. And then it was global warming, we’re all going to burn up.”