Interstate 5

The sun shines through wildfire smoke onto Interstate 5 on Tuesday.

We’re all under a cloud right now.

You can look outside our window to see some of it. Wildfire smoke has blown in on an ill wind, carried by a rare easterly gale over Labor Day that spread fires even west of the Cascades. It’s a most unwelcome return to the new “Ash-gust” or “SmokedEmber” season that has become sadly common these past few years.

We’re also laboring to catch our breath under an onslaught of misinformation, blame and suspicion.

As wildfires spread this week, roaring through far-flung areas as well as unusually close to cites, irresponsible rumors began swirling online. Some said far-left or far-right protesters were to blame.

Police and fire officials begged people not to share these rumors, but in a vacuum of uncertainty, people flock to whatever “information” is available, even if it’s spun together like cotton candy from nothing more than the toxic sugar high we feel from blaming all our ills on bogeymen.

As always, a hint of truth underlies conspiracy theories. There have been a few scattered arrests for arson, but no evidence they are from politically motivated extremists, and certainly nothing like the “coordinated attack” that some irresponsible click-bait social media posts, gussied up like news sites, were claiming.

These rumors make the job of law enforcement harder.

“Rumors spread just like wildfire,” the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon posted, “and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires.”

In hard times, we need responsible facts, not reckless speculation. We need to follow our highest impulses.

Fortunately, as we peer through the thick, acrid smoke, there is nobility and bravery on display to inspire us to do just that.

In California, Air National Guard members flew helicopters through worse-than-warlike conditions to rescue people encircled by flames.

The U.S. Forest Service found a way to rescue people trapped in Oregon, who were about ready to head for the docks to leap into the water and “make a last stand.”

Heroic rescues in dramatic situations show what is possible when steadfast courage and intelligent creativity meet an unexpectedly dangerous situation.

Many of us imagine how we might respond to that kind of a desperate crisis. We hope we’d be brave and quick-witted to save the day.

In hard times, we can all summon our heroic natures by refusing to jump to conclusions based on rumors and shaky supposition.

What’s ahead will call for even more steadfast courage.

How we respond to disasters like wildfires and global pandemics can bring out the worst in us — fear, blame, suspicion and a rush to judgment. We can give up, throwing up our hands and saying “it is what it is.”

Or we can listen to our better angels — and to one another. We can wait for responsible, accountable reporting and trustworthy information, rather than online rumors and scammy fake news sites.

Rather than looking for conspiracies, let’s look for solutions.

Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the people who show up every day and take responsibility for their mistakes, rather than a fly-by-night newcomer who pops up with exactly what we want to hear.

Let’s listen to both sides as we try to prevent conflagration seasons from becoming the new normal. Folks on the left say that the solution is aggressive action against climate change. Folks on the right say we need to increase logging and thinning to clear forests from thick overgrowth.

Maybe there is some truth on both sides. Maybe partisan advocates could act as statesmen, looking for a broad solution and a grand bargain that incorporates decent ideas from both perspectives.

Firefighters douse flames with water and dig fire lines to prevent blazes from racing across the countryside. In the same way, we need to arm ourselves with trust and responsibility to fight the fires of lies and suspicion that are burning through our civic life.

There are arsonists out there, lighting fires in the trees and on Facebook.

Will you fan the flames or will you be a person to spread cool water to fight the blaze?

***

Brian Mittge is peering through the smoke. Drop him a line at brianmittge@hotmail.com.

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