Nearly 3,000 firefighters and first responders have flooded the Sierra foothills of Mariposa County battling the explosive Oak fire, but it's the guys in camouflage fatigues and surplus war vehicles that have most alarmed some evacuees and monitors of extremist groups.
As fire crews made headway Tuesday against a blaze that has roared through 18,000 acres, destroyed 25 homes and forced thousands to flee their homes, the presence of a self-described militia whose members handed out food and offered help to evacuees has raised concerns among some.
Calling itself the Echo Company of the California State Militia’s 2nd Regiment, the group had set up a field kitchen off Highway 140 recently and told the Merced Sun-Star it was offering food, water and a place to stay for those in need. Online, the group posts videos of members training with rifles, shields and other equipment, along with the group's tagline: "We who dare."
The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office announced on Facebook on Sunday that it had been “made aware” of the presence of a local militia in the area. “We appreciate their efforts and any of the efforts of other private groups or entities helping our community,” the statement read.
But those who monitor extremist groups questioned whether their actions were truly altruistic.
Self-described militia groups have often inserted themselves into natural disaster zones, they said. Sometimes the groups claim to provide help and supplies, while actually promoting right-wing extremist ideologies, anti-government sentiment and conspiracy theories.
“It puts these groups in a positive light and extends to them a type of de-facto authority that they really don’t have under the law, which poses significant issues,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “When you have a system that allows unregulated extremists to cosplay at times of disaster, you get, well, unqualified extremists cosplaying at times of disaster.”
The Sheriff’s Office had not requested the militia's presence and said members were acting on “their own courteous accord.”
“The public should be aware that the militia has not been activated or requested to act for any purpose by the Sheriff’s Office or any agency working the Oak fire,” the agency said on Facebook. “We are not unsupportive of groups helping those affected by the Oak fire, however, it is important that we inform the community of resources available to them by the incident and Mariposa County.”
The group’s presence came as firefighters appeared to make significant gains, even after the fire had destroyed 41 structures and kept thousands from their homes.
The northeast side of the fire was continuing to push against steep terrain and was at risk of bumping around the 2018 Ferguson fire burn scar, which could then ignite new brush and forest and make the fire harder to control, said Escondido Fire Department public information officer Dominic Polito, who was working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on the blaze.
“If it runs up around the Ferguson scar, then we’re off to the races,” he said. “If not, then we’re looking very good.”
By Tuesday, the fire reached 26% containment, according to Cal Fire. Several residents were allowed to return to their homes by Friday evening as evacuation orders for some areas were reduced to fire advisements.
Still, about 1,440 buildings remained threatened as the fire continued to press on the eastern boundary, and firefighters continued to fight through steep terrain.
“The terrain is very slippery,” said Fresno Fire Capt. Chris Garcia. “Even putting firefighters up there is very hazardous. What can happen when walking is a dislodged rock can hit another firefighter, and we’re currently hitting a lot of snags, which is what we call a burnt out tree that ends up falling.”
Those residents that had been forced to flee were still reeling from the blur of packing up what they could and leaving their homes in uncertainty.
“I had never seen [smoke] that close before,” said Richard Perez, a 40-year resident of Mariposa County.
He and his wife packed their belongings and stuffed them into two cars, including their dogs and chickens.
"That's my dream home, you know," he said, "I worked my whole life to finally get a place."
They ushered their three German shepherds into one car, and 11 of their chickens in the other. After one night at a local hotel, they stayed at the American Red Cross shelter at Mariposa Elementary along with about 40 other evacuees.
“I’ve been there for 20 years, and to lose everything,” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s just material stuff, but it’s home.”
It’s residents like Perez that the uniformed militia group said it was looking to help.
Daniel Latner, a member of the group, told the Mercury News that around 20 members arrived with large military-surplus vehicles to help feed residents. Members, he said, were not armed.
Yet some residents found their presence unsettling.
“The last thing I’m going to do is take a free tri-tip sandwich from a right-wing extremist group,” a woman, who declined to be identified citing fear of provoking the group, told the Mercury News.
The group in Mariposa County had once been affiliated with a larger militia with a similar name, but the larger militia cut ties with Echo Company because of an incident in 2020, it said, when they inserted armed members between Black Lives Matter supporters and pro-police groups in a protest in Atwater.
In a 2020 statement, the larger group wrote online that it disavowed Echo Company because of “potential legal liability in light of the continued militant activities of other units,” and called the actions “inciteful.”
The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
The presence of militia in natural disaster zones can seem well-intentioned, but can in fact be harmful because members are taking on actions that can interfere with trained government agencies that are coordinating a response, Levin said.
Many extremists groups are also known to use similar incidents to gain media attention and recruit new members.
Militia groups have also gained newfound scrutiny after the involvement of similar groups in the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. Members of groups including the Oath Keepers — which years earlier had appeared at hurricane zones and conducted trainings for local residents to prepare for natural disasters — have been indicted for their alleged role in the attack.
Levin said he is also concerned that, even if the group is providing assistance to residents, law enforcement’s subtle approval raises questions about the public’s interaction with them.
“If it turns out there’s extremists within those ranks, that’s a critical juncture where people are at their most vulnerable,” he said. “Vulnerable people at vulnerable times require a qualified response, and they don’t need to be exposed to the possibility of extremism.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.