As wildfires rage worse than ever across California, firefighters have pleaded with locals not to battle the blazes on their own. Now they might have a new worry during a year of violent unrest across America: unsanctioned fire rescue efforts organized by hyper-partisan Facebook groups comprised at least in part of Blue Lives Matter-style vigilantes.
Defend East County, a 20,000-person Facebook group that organized in opposition to Black Lives Matter protests near San Diego, has begun fire rescue missions, especially for animals, according to recent posts by members in the group.
On their face, fire rescue campaigns may sound like an unambiguous good—the Valley Fire in the area had claimed some 17,000 acres and dozens of buildings by Tuesday afternoon. But state and local officials say amateur efforts can impede professional firefighters.
Add in a group involved in multiple recent violent confrontations, and the situation can turn potentially explosive.
“If you’re not trained in firefighting, it’s dangerous to you, because you do not have the communications, and you may not have the tools, the knowledge, on how to do what you want to do,” Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, told The Daily Beast. “You can potentially put actual firefighters’ lives at risk if you get yourself injured or trapped, or need rescue of some sort.”
Nevertheless, administrators in the group Defend East County (DEC) have posted about multiple fire rescue efforts in the county, including establishing a physical “command post” from which they would launch animal rescue efforts. (Some of the posts were archived by an anti-DEC Twitter account.) The group has also posted pictures, apparently of members organizing on multiple occasions for fire rescue efforts in recent days.
Justin Haskins, the group’s founder, told The Daily Beast that the DEC had been out with hundreds of members relocating livestock and locals since Saturday. “The level of experience for people varies. We have inexperienced people, we have experienced people, and everybody in between,” he said.
But East County locals might know the DEC for more controversial reasons. A San Diego Union-Tribune exposé on the Facebook group depicted it as “a place where conspiracy theories, racist banter, and calls for violence persist.”
The group formally bans racism, but racist language has flourished therein. When discussing Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi symbols in the county, some DEC members reportedly shrugged.
“Who cares if people think that Santee [an East County city] is racist,” one member responded, according to the Union-Tribune. “That’s been the only thing to keep the ghetto out all these years.”
DEC members have featured prominently at local protests, where members carried large knives and (in at least one case) a bullwhip. The Union-Tribune connected DEC and related anti-BLM Facebook groups to at least five physical or verbal altercations in the area as of mid-August.
Haskins has called racial justice protesters “terrorists,” and told the Union-Tribune he believed the nation was in a “cold civil war.”
Political differences hindered at least one DEC fire effort, Haskins said in a recent video on the group’s Facebook page. While complaining that the group was not allowed past police barricades without an official escort, Haskins said that “we actually found a back road onto one of these ranches and were told to get the f off the property because we had a Trump flag on our truck, but that’s neither here nor there.” (He told The Daily Beast that the incident was “about one of the only situations where that happened.”)
If the DEC is doing animal rescues, as they claim, they do not appear to be communicating with local officials. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department, which has worked with several local agencies to combat fires in the region, told The Daily Beast that neither they nor their partners were working with the group.
Agencies across the state are in a similar dilemma over wannabe volunteers. A retired Cal Fire director told the Associated Press last month that he’d seen more unlicensed firefighting this season than ever before. The trouble, another Cal Fire official said, comes when volunteers and credentialed firefighters start competing over resources like roads or water.
Haskins said his peers felt frustrated because they had helped neighbors in wildfire seasons past. Now, he said, local animal services workers and the San Diego Humane Society were hindering those neighborly efforts.
In video, Haskins filmed what he said were Humane Society staff sitting in their cars. “I’m not gonna put their faces on here, I’m just showing all the Humane Society people that are sitting here doing nothing,” he said. He later added, “We need you guys to call the Humane Society and tell them to help us help these animals.”
Asked whether those calls might waste Humane Society resources, Haskins told The Daily Beast that “it does and that was absolutely a mistake on my part, but we’ve seen that when we apply pressure and people see there’s help out there—we just want them to allow us to help. We don’t want to jam their lines and take up their resources, so on one aspect it was a mistake, but on another, people need to know what’s going on.”
Other DEC members have criticized the San Diego Humane Society for asking them to leave animal rescue to the professionals.
“To the people defending the Humane Society stating they are doing this for our safety, let me ask you this,” one DEC member posted. “How many other rights and freedoms have you given up in the last 6 months in the name of ‘safety’ in regards to the virus??? Take a second and ponder that. Who is any organization to decide if you can or can’t help your neighbor in a time of need?”
In fact, the Humane Society does not enforce who is allowed into evacuation zones. Police departments—the organizations that groups like DEC loudly support, especially when they are accused of violence against people of color—do.
“We appreciate the concern for animals and people’s willingness to help,” a San Diego Humane Society spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Road closures are being implemented by law enforcement. Neither San Diego Humane Society nor the Department of Animal Services determine who can get through to assist with animal rescues, or any activity behind fire lines.”
“During this emergency, only credentialed individuals are allowed through,” the spokesperson added. “For this reason and for the public’s safety, members of the public are unable to directly assist with our animal evacuation efforts.”
Fringe—and sometimes outright extremist—groups have conducted public relations-friendly rescue efforts in the past. The League of the South, a white supremacist group that marched during 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, posted online about conducting hurricane relief efforts in Florida in 2018.
The Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, did the same after a hurricane in Texas in 2017. During the campaign, the Proud Boys took pictures with local police and uploaded them to their website with the caption “Blue Lives Matter.” (Despite their apparent support for police, Proud Boys have repeatedly run afoul of the law. The Proud Boy whose picture topped the hurricane relief article was arrested the following year for filing a false police report, a charge on which he pleaded no contest. He later jumped bail, was re-arrested, and this year was accused of planning an assassination plot in conversations recorded by an FBI informant.)
Elsewhere this year, vigilante attempts to collude with police departments have led to at least two deaths. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who traveled interstate to patrol protests in support of police, is accused of murdering two Black Lives Matter protesters.
Tolmachoff, the Cal Fire spokesperson, said fire agencies could use help—in a responsible, well-planned way.
“A lot of people don’t think about it day to day until an emergency happens. Then they’re like, ‘I've got to volunteer now!’ The problem is that you need to do that before all this happens,” she said.
For now, she said, being helpful might mean donating or volunteering with organized groups like the Red Cross. For future fires, she recommended reaching out to a volunteer fire agency for more information.
“If you feel like you want to try out helping out a volunteer fire department or another agency, get in touch with them when things settle down,” she said.