An antifa-fearing militia has called itself to action in Mariposa County as officials battle raging wildfires
The parking lot of H&L Lumber in Mariposa, California, was host to a flurry of activity Sunday as members of a local militia sporting military-style fatigues
The parking lot of H&L Lumber in Mariposa, California, was host to a flurry of activity Sunday as members of a local militia sporting military-style fatigues handed out pancakes and steak sandwiches to evacuees of the Oak Fire raging nearby. Along with breakfast, they doled out business cards with QR codes and directions to join their militia.
Some say the members of the Echo Company militia served as a de facto checkpoint or an advertisement for the group during the crisis, according to witnesses who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified.
“They had their whole setup with military-style trucks, and they were in their fatigues and whatnot,” said Rain Winchester, a manager at Mariposa’s nearby Monarch Inn. “I’m fine with them helping out with relief efforts as long as they don’t start to set up roadblocks or do any security work. I don’t want them doing the work of the sheriff’s office.”
The militia is becoming a consistent presence in rural Mariposa County southeast of Sacramento with a population of 17,131 scattered across 14 towns, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
Providing immediate assistance in military-style garb during an emergency is a recruiting tactic used by militias nationwide, and not confined to Mariposa County. As climate change creates more wildfires and adverse weather events, further straining local law enforcement and fire services, militias around the nation have seized on the disasters as opportunities to entangle themselves into the politics and emergency services of small communities.
In the aftermath of fires in Oregon in 2020, militias set up civilian roadblocks, which stopped at least one fleeing Black family and were ignored by local police. Members of the Oath Keepers have created a “community protection team,” six of whom were arrested for breaking a curfew during Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Joshua James, an Oath Keeper who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, met and joined the militia during relief efforts for Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Wildfires in the United States this year have consumed 5.6 million acres. The Oak Fire destroyed at least 116 homes and burned more than 19,000 acres, according to local fire authorities.
Serving as de facto aid organizations is a common recruitment and community ingratiation tactic used in rural areas to win support and acceptance during emergencies, said Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Although help is always needed in difficult times, it is incredibly important to remember that militias are providing it with an agenda,” she said.
“That agenda is to recruit members of the community, including victims into their organizations, legitimize them, and radicalize people into holding grievances against the government they may very well express through intimidation or violence.”
Echo Company is one of hundreds of active militias across the U.S., according to a 2016 tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center, numbers that have climbed steadily in recent years. Experts have warned that militia groups have been emboldened by former President Donald Trump and other leaders of the Republican Party.
It was not immediately clear how many members Echo Company has. In times where there are no disasters, it’s most commonly known for holding training sessions for its members and attending protests, common practices for U.S. militias.
Echo Company is, however, well known among California militias.
It was ousted from the larger California State Militia organization in 2020 for capitalizing on larger, fictitious fears of antifa looters and “for behavior that was interpreted as potentially inciteful and militant.”
Echo Company attended a “straight pride” rally in 2020, alongside the Central Valley Proud Boys.
But there are signs its efforts to provide services have worked. The group has in recent years gained favor among some in the community, as evidenced by the response to a sheriff’s office Facebook post that warned residents to “be aware of a local militia around the Mariposa town area.”
The post was soon flooded with support for the militia. Hours later, the sheriff’s department issued an “update” softening their stance.
“Clearing up confusion and answering the large amount of comments on this original post,” the updated post reads. “We are not unsupportive of community 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.”