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.”
The sheriff’s office then added it did “appreciate” the militia’s efforts.
“We had received multiple notifications inquiring why we had ‘activated that militia’ [and] this post was intended to clarify that we have not activated them, they are acting on their own courteous accord,” the post reads. “We appreciate their efforts and any [of] the efforts of other private groups or entities helping our community.”
Leadership of Echo Company did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.
Wildfires have been a particularly active time for militias, including Echo Company, often due to misinformation that antifa or groups of looters were coming to take advantage of their communities. In 2020, law enforcement in California and the Pacific Northwest struggled to contain false rumors that antifa was intentionally setting wildfires so that “antifa buses” could surge into towns and loot local businesses.
Mickee Hernandez, a leader of the larger California State Militia, said Echo Company was expelled from the group for providing private security to companies fearing the false Facebook rumors that antifa was set to come loot stores in Atwater, California.
“We had a falling out, so to speak. We deactivated the unit officially from us. They continue to use our moniker,” he said.
The QR code handed out to Mariposa locals Sunday directed those who scanned it to a cloned California State Militia, 2nd Infantry website that is unaffiliated with Hernandez’s larger group.
Before the group was banned from Facebook during a broader platform crackdown on militias, Echo Company posted pictures of the group in fatigues providing security in the community, including “guys standing on the roof with weapons,” Hernandez said.
“Militias, in California especially, can’t do things like that for hire with weapons, especially because of California law. It creates doubt in the public’s mind about what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Before the regiment was banned from Facebook, Echo Company posted a logo of the Three Percenters, an extremist movement that advocates for a second American Civil War.
Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the California Office of Emergency Services, said there is no circumstance in which California would “activate” a militia.
“California has a National Guard. We have a military. We do not have a state militia,” he said. “This is something we take very seriously. This is in no way related to the state and it is not something we condone.”
Goldwasser said that while militias may provide assistance in the moment, there is danger in allowing them to take over for official aid organizations after emergencies.
“There is no easy way to regulate how militias carry out their volunteerism during or after natural disasters,” she said. “Since they are not invited to participate and are not managed by a legitimate agency, they may be discriminatory in who they choose to help or worse, discriminate against victims whose ideologies or skin colors are different from their own.”
On Facebook, comments continued to pour in supporting Echo Company, thanking the group for pancakes, with many insisting it was “good to stop looters.”
“Thank you for your service. The police can’t be everywhere they have few enough in our areas. Don’t loot and we won’t shoot!!” a top comment reads, quoting a Facebook post from Trump from May 2020.
Others responding to the sheriff’s office’s post insisted their community didn’t need the militia’s help.
“There is a wide open park with a shade filled pavilion. Completely empty. You would figure that would be the perfect area for evacuees to eat and unwind, but no, they chose a couple parking lots in the middle of town, highly visible, so they could advertise,” a commenter responded.
“They have no authority. They are in costume and they want attention. That is all. Otherwise they would move their charade to a place that makes sense.”