The deadly wildfires raging in Northern California have claimed at least 42 lives so far. The disastrous fires have spread through 220,000 acres and destroyed 6,700 homes and other structures, forcing scores of people to evacuate their homes and live in shelters. More than 50 people are still missing in Sonoma County alone, although Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Butte and several other counties are also battling vicious blazes.
At a time when the United States is struggling to overcome the destruction caused by a number of calamities and people should be focusing on helping Californians deal with the aftermath of the wildfires, many conservatives are busy using the tragedy to further their anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The cause of the wildfires is still under investigation, but several right-wing website are wrongfully blaming an undocumented immigrant for starting the fires.
Here is what the Breitbart, a conspiracy theory website run by white nationalist Stephen Bannon, published recently:
“The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) issued a detainer request on the Sonoma County Jail for Jesus Fabian Gonzalez, who was arrested Sunday on suspicion of arson in Wine Country fires that have killed at least 40 residents.”
It is a lie.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department indeed arrested a 29-year-old homeless man in Maxwell Farms Regional Park. Identified as Jesus Fabian Gonzales, the man was no stranger to the deputies and frequently visited the park. He reportedly started the fire to keep himself warm and was carrying a fire extinguisher and lighter at the time, according to the officials.
The sheriff’s department has since verified the fire was so small that a deputy had extinguished most of it himself before firefighters arrived.
“There is a story out there that [Gonzales] is the arsonist in these fires,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said during a press conference in an effort to shut down the baseless speculations. “That’s not the case. There is no indication he is related to these fires at all. ... I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”
Even though Gonzales is currently sitting in Sonoma County jail with a $100,000 bond, the conservative media would not stop attacking him.
Here is an excerpt from the story right-wing website InfoWars did on him:
“Mr. Gonzalez was booked into the Sonoma County Jail for suspicion of felony arson.”
Similar publication named American News 24/7 also chimed in:
“Jesus Fabian Gonzalez is now sitting in the Sonoma County Jail on suspicion of arson for being at least one of those responsible for the rash of fires that have devastated California this month killing at least 40.”
Again, as the sheriff clearly told the reporters, Gonzales was not booked for suspicion of felony arson.
However, since when have these websites ever cared about getting their facts straight?
Soon, other right wing media outlets also began covering the Breitbart’s version of the story, drawing attention of anti-immigrant activists across the country.
Will you denounce @JerryBrownGov 'a declaration of a Sanctuary State, now that an Illegal Alien's been arrested 4 arson in Santa Rosa fire?— Dom Daduud (@DaduudDom) October 19, 2017
The Santa Rosa fire was not caused by Climate. It was Arson by an illegal Alien, in a Sanctuary County. ICE had a detainer for Deportation.— RealCovfefeGuy (@Paleoturkey) October 18, 2017
It seems some Breitbart News, which first picked up the story, was so adamant on holding an immigrant responsible for the blaze that the only thing it confirmed from the sheriff’s department were Gonzalez’s ethnicity and if ICE had placed a detainer on him.
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said there is an ICE detainer request on Gonzalez, which would hold him for an additional 48 hours at the jail. However, the sheriff's office is not complying with it.
Thumbnail/Banner: Reuters, Jim Urquhart