On Wednesday, Snopes ran the headline “Did Mexican drug cartels start the Northern California wildfires?”
The answer is no.
Although Snopes technically calls the claim “unproven,” since as of today (no matter what disreputable news sites claim), the cause for the fires has to be determined. The problem started when right-wing blog Got News claimed an exclusive bombshell in the ongoing wildfire story, writing:
Law enforcement authorities—including senior Department of Homeland Security officials—and key people within the legal marijuana business quickly noticed that the areas hit hardest by the fires are the same places that California’s marijuana industry legally grows cannabis, and are now starting to suspect foul play.
The suspicious timing and sheer destruction of the fires has led them to believe the Mexican drug cartels—infamous for their ruthless tactics—had a hand in starting them. These cartels, which run a large share of the world’s multi-billion dollar illegal drug trade, certainly have the means to pull of an attack like this.
The blog does not cite any of its alleged law enforcement sources, nor does it cite a single quote from any source. It fails to present any evidence beyond the fact that the fires damaged marijuana crops.
The anonymous Got News editor also claims that “while massive wildfires are far from uncommon in California’s forests, they usually occur in December and January, not October.” This statement is also misleading.
While it’s true that, of the 20 largest fires in Cal Fire records, only two started in October, none of the blazes began in January or December, with August and September being the most dangerous time.
Snopes called the Got News blog “thinly sourced,” adding: “A spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told us the investigation into the fires was still ongoing and that it could be a matter of months before a cause or causes are determined.”
In related news, both right-wing site Breitbart and conspiracy blog InfoWars spread another unfounded yarn about the cause of the fires, falsely accusing a 29-year-old Latino man of starting the fires.
On Tuesday, Sonoma County’s sheriff shot down those rumors. While it’s true law enforcement took Jesus Fabian Gonzales into custody Sunday on suspicion of starting a blaze, Sheriff Rob Giordano told the Sacramento Bee that the incident does not appear to be related to any of the wildfires.
“I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control,” says Giordano.
The San Francisco Chronicle points out that Gonzales, who is homeless, claims he started a fire to keep warm.
And finally, although suspicions that PG&E equipment may have set off the fires sent stock prices tumbling and sparked at least one lawsuit, there is not yet any concrete evidence that this was the actual cause either.
In short, fire investigators simply don’t yet know what caused the still ongoing conflagrations.