At least three viral images that appear to show laser beams have spread across social media as purported evidence of the origins of the Maui fires.
Wildfires swept through western Maui, an island in Hawaii, on Aug. 8 and 9, destroying the historic town of Lahaina and devastating many other communities on the island. It is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century with more than 111 dead as of Aug. 18, but the rescue efforts continue so the death toll is expected to rise.
The exact cause of the Lahaina fire is unknown, although the risk of fire was high given dry conditions on the island. The uncertainty has fueled several conspiracy theories.
One of the most popular theories is that the fires started due to an attack from a directed energy weapon. There are at least three viral images of what appear to be laser beams people have shared as “evidence” of these purported directed energy weapons.
One image that appears to show an orange laser beam over an explosion has been viewed millions of times on X, formerly known as Twitter, and also went viral in a video posted to Instagram. Other popular posts appear to show a thin laser beam fired directly down at a forested area with smoke around its base. Yet another viral video purporting to show directed energy weapons appears to reveal a laser beam coming down at an angle to hit a building in a crowded town.
Do these three viral posts show evidence that directed energy weapons started the wildfires in Maui?
No, three viral images do not show evidence that directed energy weapons started the wildfires in Maui. All three are older images taken in different locations, and none of them show directed energy weapons.
WHAT WE FOUND
All three images predate the Maui wildfires, which began August 2023. None of the images or videos were taken in Maui or any of the Hawaiian islands, and none of them show directed energy weapons.
Directed energy weapons are real, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says many countries are researching their use. Lasers can be considered directed energy weapons, GAO says. However, all three viral pieces of media have documented causes, none of which are lasers or any other directed energy weapon.
The first photo, the low-quality image of an orange fireball at the bottom of what appears to be an orange beam, can be traced back to an image posted to Facebook in January 2018. It was posted in response to a local Canton, Ohio, newspaper’s request for photos of a controlled burn at Marathon’s Canton Refinery on the night of Jan. 16.
The comments to the newspaper’s request include multiple photos of the burn that look similar to the image now being used as “evidence” of a directed energy weapon used in Maui. For example, this photo, this photo and this photo of the same controlled burn event all show what appears to be an orange flame at the bottom of a faint laser beam.
Another image of what appears to be the same controlled burn was used in this Cleveland-based news station’s article from January 2018 about “light pillars” or “sun dogs” being common during northeast Ohio winters. The National Weather Service explains that “sun pillars” are created when light crystals slowly fall through the air and reflect the sun’s rays off of them. They normally happen while the sun is close to the horizon — much like where a bright, ground-level burn would be.
The other photo, showing the thin laser beam with the smoke around its base, is actually a May 22, 2018, time-lapse photo of a SpaceX rocket launch posted to X, Instagram and Flickr. SpaceX said the rocket was launched from California, not Maui.
Time-lapse photos of rocket launches sometimes show “beams” created by putting together multiple photos of the flame emitted by the rocket’s boosters. You can see an example in this March 2012 NASA photograph.
The viral video of the “laser beam” hitting a residential area is actually from this viral TikTok recorded and posted May 25, 2023, two months before the fires in Maui began. The version that claims to be from Maui is mirror-reversed and zoomed-in, with audio of the explosion edited into the beginning of the video.
According to the original TikTok’s description, it was taken in Macul, Chile; at the time, the person who took the video lost power in their apartment and heard an explosion. A Chilean news station ran a segment on the video, during which it explained that the video showed a transformer’s explosion.
“The explosion of a transformer due to the strong wind this week was captured by a video that went viral on social networks,” CHV Noticias wrote in Spanish in the description of the segment posted to YouTube. “An optical effect makes it appear that a strange light is generating the explosion. The theories that arose and what really happened in the following note.”
Humberto Verdejo, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Santiago de Chile, told CHV Noticias that windy weather likely caused a tree branch to hit electrical equipment suspended above ground, triggering the explosion. The reporter said the streak of light from the sky is likely a reflection in the camera.
By watching the video frame-by-frame, you can see the flash of light from the explosion comes before the beam. At frame 447, there is no flash of light, explosion or beam. At frame 448, a flash of light appears right under the roof of the large building at the center of the screen. At frame 449, the explosion becomes larger and the beam appears.
The same person who posted the original TikTok later posted a slowed down version of the video that also shows the explosion began before the “laser.”
There are four wildfires that the County of Maui says were first reported on Aug. 8: the Lahaina fire, the Olinda and Kula fires (previously lumped together as the Upcountry fire) and the Kihei fire. All four are active, but at least 80% contained as of the county’s Aug. 17 update.
Security camera footage posted to Instagram by the Maui Bird Conservation Center appears to show the origin of the Olinda fire. The footage depicts a flash in the woods on the night of Aug. 7, which the video’s speaker says was likely the moment a tree fell on a power line. This was the first fire reported of the four, based on the County of Maui’s news updates.
The causes of the remaining fires remain under investigation, but reports from the day they started strongly suggest they may be related to downed power lines caused by the high winds of Hurricane Dora.
When the County of Maui reported the Lahaina fire had been 100% contained as of the morning of Aug. 8 (a flareup that afternoon later turned into the inferno that destroyed Lahaina), the county reported that Hawaiian Electric was responding to a downed power line in the area and that high winds from Hurricane Dora fueled the fire.
Between the fire’s containment in the morning and the flareup in the afternoon, the County of Maui reminded the public to exercise caution because “strong winds are causing hazardous conditions with downed power lines and trees.” Wind gusts ranged between 40 mph and 60 mph across much of Maui that day, the National Weather Service says. The island was also under a red flag warning, which is issued when critical fire conditions are expected, because of persisting dry weather and high winds caused by the nearby Hurricane Dora.
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