We came across the following posts on the social media network X (formerly Twitter):
The posts claim that the wildfires that occurred on the Hawaiian island of Maui on the night of 8 August, devastating the town of Lahaina, did not happen naturally, but were instead caused by ‘direct energy weapons’ (DEWs).
The posts included one by Stew Peters, a prominent conspiracy theorist. We have previously factchecked and debunked claims by Peters that people around the world were dying suddenly due to the Covid-19 vaccine. In addition to claiming that DEWs were used, Peters also claimed that the DEWs were ‘powerful enough to set the Pacific Ocean on fire’, attaching a clip taken in a body of water with flames burning in the background.
Another user posted a clip describing an image of a ‘laser beam coming out of the sky’, which was described as the DEW in action. The caption indicated that these fires were caused intentionally to ‘forward the climate change agenda’.
When we looked up direct energy weapons, we found that the term was likely being used to refer to directed energy weapon systems, which both the US Navy and US Army are developing. These weapon systems would use high-energy lasers or high-power microwaves, and an intended use described by a Navy spokesman was as potential defence mechanisms against hypersonic missiles developed by Russia and China.
The laser beam generated by the directed energy systems generates no sound and it is not visible. In addition, if used correctly, the beam would disable the electronics on the target and cause it to fall out of the sky rather than explode.
As the described appearance of directed energy weapons systems did not correspond with the images and effects indicated in the social media posts, we did a reverse image search on the web to identify any other contexts for the images.
In doing so, we found that the image of the laser beam coming out of the sky had been debunked by Snopes, which found that the beam of light was the result of a cold-weather visual phenomenon known as a ‘light pillar’.
The image was also found not to have originated during the wildfires in Maui, but rather in Michigan in 2018 when a controlled burn at an oil refinery was viewed from a distance. Conspiracy theories had also arisen at the time that DEWs were responsible.
The image posted by Peters of the flames on the water, meanwhile, are not images of the water burning, but rather the boats in the harbour on fire in the distance. A fire expert at the University of Minnesota Centre for Forest Ecology told Newsweek that despite the boats being on the water, they could still be set ablaze from the intense radiant heat or embers being blown from the shore by high winds.
Other doubts raised by social media users could also be explained by natural phenomena. Flashes of light prior to the wildfire could be explained by active power lines collapsing from high winds, while the common occurrence of standing dead trees called ‘snags’ following wildfires could explain the trees left standing after the fire in Maui. Some trees have also developed evolutionary strategies to better survive wildfires.
While officials have not determined the origin of the wildfire, the US National Weather Service said that the exceptionally powerful fire that raged through Lahaina was strengthened by dry weather on Hawaii that created drought conditions, strong winds driven by Hurricane Dora, and the winds travelling downslope towards the town.
As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires, conspiracy theories have emerged as a means to explain the disasters among those who do not accept that they have natural origins. The California wildfires in 2020, the Greece wildfires of 2021, and the Canadian wildfires earlier this year were all attributed to human-orchestrated conspiracies by some groups.
There is no evidence that the Hawaii wildfires were started intentionally or the result of the use of DEWs, and the footage cited as evidence is spurious. Various claims regarding the Hawaii wildfires have also been debunked by AP News, AFP Fact Check, Snopes and BBC.
The claim that a ‘direct energy weapon’ was used in the Hawaii wildfires is therefore false.