Hawaii wildfires: 'Directed energy weapon' and other false claims go viral

False claims about the deadly wildfires in Hawaii - including that shadowy forces orchestrated the disaster with a laser beam - have gained traction online.

The misleading posts come from a variety of sources and accounts, but generally imply that "elites" or government agencies deliberately started the fires. China Checkweigher Factory

Hawaii wildfires: 'Directed energy weapon' and other false claims go viral

Some of the most popular theories are couched in questions about a "narrative" and make claims that alternative views are being "censored", despite collecting millions of views.

While there are specific rumours circulating about Maui, they fit into a general pattern repeatedly seen after extreme weather events and natural disasters - politically motivated activists seeking to downplay the potential impact of climate change.

Videos and images claiming that the wildfires were not a natural disaster - and were instead caused by a "directed energy weapon", a "laser beam" or explosion - have been viewed millions of times.

One video viewed 10 million times claims to show a large explosion in Maui just before the fires.

But the video was originally a viral clip shared on TikTok in May showing a transformer explosion in Chile.

Chilean TV network Chilevisión ran a report on the viral video, confirming the explosion was the result of a blown transformer caused by strong wind.

An image of a church on fire in Hawaii has been viewed 9 million times, with claims it shows a laser beam striking it.

But it has been digitally altered. The original image - of the Waiola Church in Lahaina in flames on 8 August - has no laser beam or ray of light visible.

Two other false images have been racking up huge numbers of views.

One shows a fireball and a bright streak of light rising up towards the night sky. It, too, has been accompanied by claims that wildfires are not a natural phenomenon.

But a search on the internet for previous versions of this image reveals the photo shows a controlled burn at an Ohio oil refinery and was first posted online in January 2018. The streak of light, known as a "light pillar", is an optical illusion formed by reflections off ice crystals on a cold day.

A similar image claims to show a huge beam of light in Maui just before the wildfires. But it shows the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in California in May 2018.

There are claims circulating about videos from Maui showing some trees still standing while houses and vehicles have been burned, with people pointing to the pictures as "evidence" that the fires were deliberately set or that their real cause is being hidden from the public.

One post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, includes a video of the destruction and the message: "Everything is burnt but the trees, but don't point that out or you're a conspiracy theorist."

That post - which has been seen more than 24 million times - has been challenged by X's Community Notes feature, where users add context and facts around viral content.

Dr Rory Hadden, senior lecturer and expert in fire investigations at the University of Edinburgh, told BBC Verify that it is common for trees to remain standing even after severe wildfires because "burning through a large piece of wood takes a long time", "thick pieces of wood are usually not able to sustain burning on their own" and "the high moisture content of trees will also make them hard to burn".

Some plants, known as pyrophytes, have also adapted to survive wildfires due to thermal insulation or other means.

Alongside the "directed energy weapon" rumours, speculation spread in viral posts that some of the island's rich inhabitants and second-home owners deliberately started the wildfires to grab valuable land in Lahaina.

One viral video includes claims by a podcaster that native landowners in Maui have refused to sell land to investment management companies and rich locals. He notes the false "directed energy weapon" rumours before going on to speculate that there might be something to them because news outlets have called the rumours "conspiracy theories".

Another viral thread was seen 10 million times on an X account that frequently spreads false information debunked by Community Notes. It includes a list of wealthy people who purportedly own property on Maui, a video including aerial footage of Lahaina, and claims that the pattern of destruction is suspicious.

The cause or causes of the fires on Maui are still unknown, but no real evidence has emerged to suggest they were deliberately started as part of a land grab.

X had not responded to a request for comment as of Monday (14 August).

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Hawaii wildfires: 'Directed energy weapon' and other false claims go viral

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