Armed groups are patrolling wildfire evacuation zones in Oregon to “protect property” and stopping “individuals within the community”, police have said.
Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said at a press conference on Monday that police are seeing “a group of different individuals that are actually trying to protect property.”
“They actually have been armed and are stopping individuals within the commune out there,” Mr Roberts said.
“First thing I’d ask them to do is please stop that. We have reached out to a number of them. If they see somebody suspicious, call us. Let us handle it. It is illegal to stop somebody at gunpoint.”
The sheriff explained that police are following up on reported incidents but that they were often unfounded and were people assisting the community or going back to their own homes.
“Many of the people we have seen going into these areas are actually going in to get another load of their personal belongings,” he said.
The sheriff explained that the department had responded to 330 calls for service over the past week in the evacuation area, a 400 per cent increase on the week before.
He urged people to continue to report suspicious behaviour to the police, expressing concern that a situation could end “tragically” due to an “overreaction” by armed groups.
“The last thing I want to see is something tragically happen because somebody is overreacting to something they believe is criminal and it’s not,” he said.
Numerous wildfires have burned in Oregon’s forested valleys and along the coast, causing mass evacuations. Oregon officials have not released an exact death toll but at least eight fatalities have been reported.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown said communities have been “substantially destroyed” and warned there could be numerous fatalities.
This years fire season has already devastated the west coast with California also having experienced wildfires advancing unprecedentedly.
Experts have warned the fires, which have long occurred in the area, have become more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change.
“There’s a lot of panic and alert going around with the belief that people are running around setting fires,” Mr Roberts said.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about folks trying to set fires I want to reassure everybody that we are on this and if you see anything suspicious call us.”