It’s not known what sparked the wildfires in Maui, although some evidence points to downed power lines. The conditions were ripe for fire, as large amounts of invasive grasses were dry due to drought and high winds helped to rapidly spread flames. Bogus posts on social media, however, are baselessly claiming the fires were intentionally set.
A day or two before Aug. 8, when the fires were first reported, the National Weather Service in Honolulu issued both a fire weather watch and a red flag warning for the drier, leeward parts of the Hawaiian Islands, including west Maui.
“The wildfires occurred during a period of very strong winds and low relative humidity. Combined with dry vegetation due to increasing drought, all the ingredients were in place for extreme fire danger,” John H. Bravender, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Honolulu office, told us in an email.
The worst fire was in Lahaina, the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a popular tourist destination. Wind gusts spread the flames so rapidly that some people jumped into the ocean to escape. Much of the town is destroyed, including heritage sites, and as of Aug. 17, the fire was still burning.
Although no official causes for the sparks of the fires have been identified, downed power lines or other electrical equipment are likely culprits, as we’ll explain.
Social media, however, has been flooded with baseless claims suggesting that the fires are suspicious and appear planned. Some of these posts repurpose or alter photos or video clips of other events to falsely suggest the fires were the result of laser beams or other weapons.
Others allege, without evidence, that the fires were started because elites wanted to “force Native Hawaiians to sell their land,” with some erroneously linking the fires to plans to create “smart cities.”
Experts say such claims are bogus. While there are concerns now that there could be land grabs in the process of rebuilding, that doesn’t mean the fires were intentionally set.
“As you might expect, there’s no evidence of space lasers or mass conspiracies to ignite fires intentionally,” University of California Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain told us in a phone interview. “In fact, unfortunately, this situation, as horrifying and as unprecedented as it is in terms of death toll in the modern era, is very much consistent with other wildfire disasters that have evolved in other places.”
No ‘Direct Energy’ Weapon Attacks
One popular Instagram post from Aug. 11, which someone else then repackaged, claims the fire in Maui isn’t a wildfire, but instead a “direct energy weapon assault.” As evidence, the narrator then claims to show a picture from a friend in Hawaii of “a laser beam coming out of the sky directly targeting the city.”
Additional posts have used the same image, while others have recycled yet more old content, including a 2018 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a transformer explosion in Chile earlier in 2023. A video clip of an explosion at a Russian gas station in 2014 was also edited to add in a laser beam.
Directed (not “direct”) energy weapons, which can include lasers, are real. They use electromagnetic energy, and the U.S. and other countries are researching their potential use, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in May. “They offer capabilities that conventional weapons may not, but challenges have so far prevented widespread operational use,” GAO said.
But an expert told the Associated Press that such weapons would not create any kind of visible beam.
“Modern lasers with power that is high enough to start any kind of fire operate in the infrared and so cannot be seen by the naked eye,” said Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Fake photos or not, there is no evidence that weapons set any of the Maui fires. State and federal officials have also told USA Today that claims that directed energy weapons started the fires are untrue.
Fire Features Normal, Not Suspicious
One Instagram post pushing a directed energy weapon conspiracy theory also incorrectly claims that features of the Maui fires are suspicious.
“The powers that be are at work again,” a voiceover begins, showing a series of photos of the fire’s aftermath. “This was no wildfire. A wildfire that demolishes buildings, leaving trees standing. Leaving restaurant umbrellas and trees untouched. Yet, having the power to destroy a boat in the middle of the ocean. … Wildfires do not completely burn out vehicles, glass and all, yet leaving nearby trees and utility poles still standing upright.”
“It’s actually very common that wildfires will burn out structures and vehicles but leave surrounding trees, utility poles, and other vegetation unscathed,” he said, adding that wildfires are often spread through embers, rather than direct contact with flames.
Embers also easily explain how boats can catch fire, although boats can also ignite from heat or flames if close enough to shore, a fire expert told Newsweek, in response to other social media posts questioning how boats could have caught fire.
Another Instagram post — narrated by the same man who claimed a “direct energy weapon assault” using a photo of the oil refinery — falsely suggests that basic facts about the weather conditions in Maui were wrong to intimate nefarious wrongdoing.
“The media is saying that low humidity and high winds resulted in these fires,” the man says. “When you look at the wind speed on Zoom Earth, it’s nowhere near what we were told. Now, they also reported that the humidity was very low that day — 75%,” he says, referencing a Zoom Earth number on the screen. “But the average is about 61% to 77%? So then who is telling a fib?”
Swain, the UCLA climate scientist, told us that Zoom Earth data “is not a reliable source for detailed local scale meteorological information, particularly when it comes to extreme events” — and that there definitely were high winds and low humidity in the area.
There aren’t direct measurements of either measure in the area near Lahaina, Swain said, but videos show power poles snapping at their bases and roofs peeling back — events that would indicate wind gusts were easily above 60 miles per hour, and “likely locally in excess of 80 miles an hour.”
“It makes sense that they [the winds] were localized to this place because it was a downslope wind storm and the geography and weather conditions at the time would have supported very strong winds in precisely the location where the video evidence and where weather models suggest that they were ongoing at the time,” he said.
The humidity, Swain said, was “extremely low — as low as 10 or 15%.” Both conditions, he added, are “exactly the kind of weather conditions that you’d expect to contribute to a firestorm, especially in the context of a moderate to severe drought.”
Power Lines, Electrical Grid Likely Triggers for Fires
After suggesting that the media is lying about the weather conditions, the narrator of the Instagram post shows footage of what he calls a “flash,” hinting that it might be a directed energy weapon by noting that “Mountain Dew had a flavor called flash, D-E-W.”
Setting aside that a soda flavor is hardly evidence of such a weapon, this time the “flash” footage is from the current situation in Maui — but it’s evidence of a power line sparking a fire, not suggestive of any weapon.
Filmed by a security camera at the Maui Bird Conservation Center located in Olinda — far upland from the Lahaina fire — the video, which was posted in full by local authorities and with commentary from a center employee on Instagram, shows a flash in the woods followed by flames.
Jennifer Pribble, the wildlife care supervisor at the bird sanctuary who witnessed the event and narrated the Instagram post, told us in an email that the flash occurred “where a tree fell on the power lines.”
As the Washington Post reported on Aug. 15, the video evidence, combined with electrical grid-monitoring data from the company Whisker Labs, indicates the utility grid sparked the fire. Similar video and grid data evidence exists for the Lahaina fire.
At least four lawsuits have already been filed against Hawaii Electric alleging that the company was negligent and responsible for starting the Maui fires. The company did not have a program in place for turning off power during conditions of high fire risk.
Hawaii Electric’s chief executive has said that turning the power off would be dangerous for people with medical needs and that Lahaina’s water pumps required electricity. Maui’s Department of Water Supply, however, has since said that the pumps were backed up by diesel generators.
Swain said it’s possible there were multiple ignitions, but he’d be “pretty surprised if at least one of the major ignitions was not in some way from a power line or a power substation.”
It can take weeks or months for investigations to reveal ignition sources. We will update this story if an official cause of the fire is announced.
Multiple Factors Responsible for Maui Fires
This includes the nonnative grasses from former plantations that primarily fueled the fires, the drought conditions that dried out the grasses, and the high winds that spread the flames so rapidly, Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University who has previously studied Hawaii, told the Vox podcast “Today, Explained” (at 15-minute mark).
If it had been wetter or not as windy, for example, the sparks may have occurred, but might have fizzled out or only burned a small area. Without the wind, there may have been no spark, if toppled power lines ignited the flames. Or, if there hadn’t been a town downwind, there may have been a large fire, but it wouldn’t have been deadly — and may not have even made the news.
Swain noted that Lahaina, unfortunately, was located very close to the overgrown, dry grasses — and was right in the “wind corridor immediately downwind of all this flammable vegetation.” The town also had old wooden buildings and few escape routes, he said.
“All signs point to a sort of a worst-case scenario — a wildland-urban interface firestorm that occurred in the context of moderate to severe drought conditions, and amid a severe downslope windstorm, with gusts up to or even over 80 miles an hour, in a highly vulnerable community on the dry side of the island of Maui,” Swain said.
The high winds stemmed from an area of strong high pressure north of Hawaii. Hurricane Dora was also passing to the south of the islands at the time, and may have augmented the winds by creating a strong pressure gradient between the preexisting high pressure in the north and the low pressure of the hurricane. However, Swain said scientists are still debating how much of a role the hurricane itself may have had in contributing to the winds.
Complex Role of Climate Change
Some social media posts also tried to deny that climate change was a contributing factor in the fires.
“What happened in Maui was no wild fire, and it certainly wasnt climate change,” reads the caption for the post that claimed it was suspicious that not all trees or utility poles were burned.
It’s true that climate change is not the sole cause of the wildfires — but neither is any other contributing factor. That framing is unhelpful.
Swain said that climate change “probably did play a role in why the vegetation was as dry as it was, even though in this case, there were multiple other aggravating factors that probably contributed to … a large degree to why this event was so catastrophic.”
“It may not have been the dominant factor in this case,” he added. “But it is there.”
In other wildfires, such as the current ones in Canada, Swain said, climate change can be a more important factor. In the Maui fires, a larger issue was likely the presence and location of the invasive grasses, which have taken over abandoned sugarcane plantations, and make up nearly 25% of Hawaii’s landmass.
But Hawaii has gotten hotter over time, and there has been a long-term trend toward drier conditions on the leeward side of the Hawaiian Islands, which fits with what is expected with climate change, Swain said. “That would be consistent with an influence on the drying of the vegetation, even more than would have been the case otherwise,” he said.
Climate change might not have made a difference in terms of whether a fire occurred in the first place, he said, but it might have made it easier for the fire to spread quickly.
Swain added that climate change might have also helped lower the humidity during the wind event, although that is more speculative.
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