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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C

Lasers, ‘magic trees’ and Simpsons predictions: False claims about Maui wildfires spread online

Debunked theories suggest that weapons were fired from space to create “15-minute smart cities”.

RAGING WILDFIRES ON the Hawaiian island of Maui have attracted their fair share of conspiracy theories and misinformation online in recent weeks.

The wildfires, which have burned through thousands of acres during August, have given rise to speculation and rumours among Irish and international commentators.

One Irish Facebook user who regularly shares conspiracy theories suggested on the platform that the fires were caused by a “Direct Energy Weapon DEW” or “magic trees”. 

(Other rumours have claimed that no trees were burned in the wildfires). 

The post, which provides no evidence, was shared more than 120 times. It also included a video taken from Instagram showing burnt-out cars. On the ground, there are trails of what the recorder says is melted aluminium.

“660C to melt metals,” text on the screen says. “Fires can not produce tht heat ever [sic].”

There are a number of reasons to doubt these claims, but one in particular is relevant to the claim above: forest fires do produce heat above 660 degrees Celsius.

“The average forest fire sends temperatures rocketing up past 800 degrees Celsius,” an article in Scientific American reads. “Hot enough to cremate a human or melt a camera.”

The US Department of Agriculture goes further, saying: “Forest fires often reach or exceed temperatures of 2,000° Fahrenheit [or 1093° Celsius] —that’s equivalent to one-fifth the temperature of the surface of the sun.”

Other false rumours have also spread online speculating about why the fires started.

Striking images have been shared showing one house that appears undamaged amid an estate of collapsed and hollowed out houses – inspiring some Irish people to suggest an unlikely culprit for the fires.

“Looks like someone in Hawaii didn’t have a smart meter,” one Irish commenter said on a Facebook post that has been shared dozens of times. “This terror attack was orchestrated using smart metres and directed energy weapons.”

The post links to a video in which a man talks to a camera for 40 minutes, claiming that the fires were caused by “laser beams” and smart meters that were remote-controlled to blow up household appliances. (There is no evidence for this theory).

A similar claim was made in another post, also shared dozens of times, which said that the fires were caused by a “Direct Energy Weapon attack”, as was shown in a 2016 episode of the Simpsons.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) fire lasers or radio frequencies at a target to damage or disable them.

However, the Simpsons episode doesn’t depict an attack with such a weapon. Instead, a new statue reflects rays from the sun, burning much of Springfield down.

Other debunked theories suggest that these weapons were fired from space, or that trees and the homes of rich people weren’t damaged by the fires. There have also been claims that the fires were set to create “15-minute smart cities”.

In any case, neither lasers nor smart meters are likely culprits for the damage caused by the Maui wildfires.

Suggestions that smart meter-instigated electrical surges started the blazes contradicts what we know of the fires. They were first detected kilometres away in a different part of the town of Lahaina.

Hawaiian media reports a far more mundane explanation for why the house did not burn; it was recently renovated with a commercial-grade steel roof, while the vegetation around the property was removed and replaced with river stones.

And while lasers or DEWs could theoretically have started the initial flames, it’s unclear why they would be used when a simple lighter would do.

“With winds this severe and a large amount of dry grass surrounding the community, there is no need for an ignition from ‘space’,” Michael Gollner, who researches fire dynamics at the University of California-Berkeley, told AFP.

Authorities are still probing what started the inferno, but the National Weather Service issued warnings about dangerous fire conditions as a hurricane brought strong winds to an area with dry vegetation.

A 2021 fire prevention report by Maui County described fires as a growing threat due to increasing temperatures and prolonged periods of drought as a result of climate change, and the growing menace of invasive grasses.

Hawaii, despite its tropical reputation, is getting drier: a 2016 study found 90% of the state received less rain compared to a century earlier.

The Washington Post reported that power lines “likely” ignited some of the blazes. 

With reporting from AFP.

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