Weather officials warned that conditions were perfect for wildfires, which led to the start of the Maui wildfires, which have killed over 110 people so far and are the deadliest in the United States in over a century.
Update, October 31: As of late October, 99 people have died after the death toll was modified based on DNA testing.
The National Weather Service in Honolulu issued a red flag warning and a fire weather watch for the drier, leeward parts of the Hawaiian Islands, including west Maui, a day or two before the fires were first reported on August 8.
Low relative humidity and extremely strong winds were present during the time of the wildfires. All the conditions for an extreme fire danger were present, according to an email from John H. Bravender, the National Weather Service’s warning coordination meteorologist at the Honolulu office. These conditions included dry vegetation brought on by the ongoing drought.
The most destructive fire occurred in Lahaina, a well-liked tourist destination and the former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Some people fled the fire by jumping into the ocean as wind gusts spread the flames so quickly. Heritage sites are among the many destroyed areas of the town, and as of August 17, the fire was still raging.
While there are no confirmed reasons why the fires started, as we’ll explain, downed power lines or other electrical equipment are probably to blame.
On the other hand, there are a ton of unfounded rumors on social media that suggest the fires are suspicious and seem to have been planned. Some of these posts fabricate claims that the fires were caused by laser beams or other weapons by repurposing or editing images or videos from other occasions.
Others claim—without providing any supporting evidence—that the fires were started by elites who intended to “force Native Hawaiians to sell their land.” Some have even made the mistake of connecting the fires to plans to build “smart cities.”
Such claims are untrue, according to experts. It doesn’t follow that the fires were started on purpose, even though there are worries now that there might be land grabs during the reconstruction process.
“As one might anticipate, there’s no proof of space lasers or large-scale plots to start fires on purpose,” climate scientist Daniel Swain from the University of California, Los Angeles informed us over the phone. “Unfortunately, this situation is quite similar to previous wildfire disasters that have evolved in other places, despite how horrific and unprecedented the death toll in the modern era is.”
No ‘Direct Energy’ Weapon Attacks
A number of posts speculate or claim that planned attacks with peculiar weapons caused the Maui fires.
A well-known Instagram post from August 11th, which was later repackaged by someone else, asserts that the Maui fire is a “direct energy weapon assault” rather than a wildfire. Then, citing a friend’s photo from Hawaii that purports to show “a laser beam coming out of the sky directly targeting the city,” the narrator presents this as proof.
The photo, however, is from a controlled burn at an Ohio oil refinery in 2018, as other fact-checkers have clarified.
Some posts reused the same image, while others recycled even older content, such as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from 2018 and a transformer explosion that occurred in Chile earlier in 2023. A laser beam was also added to a video clip of an explosion that occurred in 2014 at a gas station in Russia.
Lasers are examples of directed energy weapons, which are real but not “direct.” A May report from the Government Accountability Office states that they use electromagnetic energy, and that the United States and other nations are investigating their possible applications. Although there are obstacles preventing their widespread operational use at this time, GAO stated that they “offer capabilities that conventional weapons may not.”
Fire Features Normal, Not Suspicious
Another false claim made in an Instagram post supporting a conspiracy theory involving directed energy weapons is that certain aspects of the Maui fires appear suspicious.
A voiceover introduces the sequence of images depicting the aftermath of the fire and states, “The powers that be are at work again.” This wasn’t a rogue fire. a wildfire that destroys structures while leaving trees intact. ignoring the trees and umbrellas at restaurants. Nonetheless, possessing the ability to capsize a boat in the middle of the sea. Wildfires do not totally destroy cars, glass and all, but they do leave surrounding trees and utility poles standing.
However, Michael Gollner, a fire science expert from the University of California, Berkeley, informed the AP that this is actually normal fire behavior.
In fact, it happens frequently for wildfires to destroy buildings and cars while sparing nearby trees, utility poles, and other vegetation. He also mentioned that embers, as opposed to direct flame contact, are frequently used to spread wildfires.
A fire expert told Newsweek in response to other social media posts raising doubts about how boats could have caught fire that embers also readily explain how boats can catch fire, though boats can also ignite from heat or flames if they are near enough to shore.
The same man who used an image of the oil refinery to allege a “direct energy weapon assault” also made false claims about basic Maui weather facts, implying that they were connected to some sort of heinous crime.
The man claims, “The media is reporting that these fires were caused by high winds and low humidity.” “The wind speed on Zoom Earth is significantly higher than what we were informed.
He points to a Zoom Earth number displayed on the screen and says, “Now, they also reported that the humidity was very low that day — 75%.” “However, the average is between 61% and 77%? Who, therefore, is lying?
The UCLA climate scientist, Swain, informed us that there were undoubtedly strong winds and low humidity in the area and that Zoom Earth data “is not a reliable source for detailed local scale meteorological information, particularly when it comes to extreme events”.
Although videos show power poles breaking at their bases and roofs peeling back, Swain said there aren’t any precise measurements of either measure in the vicinity of Lahaina. These events would suggest wind gusts that were easily over 60 mph and “likely locally in excess of 80 mph.”
“The downslope wind storm and the local weather and geography would have supported very strong winds in precisely the location where the video evidence and weather models suggest that they were ongoing at the time,” he said. “It makes sense that they [the winds] were localized to this place.”
According to Swain, the humidity was “very low — as low as 10 or 15%.” In the context of a moderate to severe drought, he continued, both conditions are “exactly the kind of weather conditions that you’d expect to contribute to a firestorm.”
Power Lines, Electrical Grid Likely Triggers for Fires
The Instagram post’s narrator first implies that the media is fabricating weather reports, then he plays video of what he refers to as a “flash,” implying that it could be a directed energy weapon by mentioning that “Mountain Dew had a flavor called flash, D-E-W.”
This time, the “flash” footage is from the current situation in Maui; however, it’s evidence of a power line sparking a fire, not suggestive of any weapon. Let’s set aside the fact that a soda flavor is hardly evidence of such a weapon.
A flash in the woods is followed by flames in this footage, which was captured on camera by a security camera at the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Olinda, which is located far upland from the Lahaina fire. Local authorities posted the entire footage on Instagram along with a center employee’s commentary.
The flash happened “where a tree fell on the power lines,” according to Jennifer Pribble, the wildlife care supervisor at the bird sanctuary who saw the incident and recounted it on Instagram. She informed us of this in an email.
The video evidence and data from Whisker Labs, a company that monitors the electrical grid, suggest that the utility grid caused the fire, as the Washington Post reported on August 15. For the Lahaina fire, comparable video and grid data evidence is available.
Hawaii Electric has been the target of at least four lawsuits that claim the company was negligent and set the fires on Maui. The business lacked a plan in place for cutting off the electricity when there was a significant risk of fire.
According to Hawaii Electric’s chief executive, Lahaina’s water pumps required electricity, and cutting off the power would put people in danger who depend on it for medical care. However, the Department of Water Supply on Maui has since stated that diesel generators supported the pumps.
Though he would be “pretty surprised if at least one of the major ignitions was not in some way from a power line or a power substation,” Swain acknowledged that it is possible that there were multiple ignitions.
Investigations that identify the sources of ignition may take weeks or months. If the cause of the fire is determined to be official, we will update this story.
Multiple Factors Responsible for Maui Fires
Even though ignition sources are frequently cited as the “cause” of a wildfire, scientists contend that a number of conditions had to come together to produce flames this intense and lethal.
According to Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University and former Hawaii researcher, 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 (at the 15-minute mark).
For example, the sparks might have happened but might have fizzled out or only burned a small area if it had been wetter or less windy.
If the flames were started by fallen power lines, there might not have been a spark in the absence of wind. Alternatively, there might have been a big fire without the town downwind, but it might not have been fatal or even mentioned in the media.
Lahaina, according to Swain, was regrettably situated in the “wind corridor immediately downwind of all this flammable vegetation,” very close to the overgrown, dry grasses. He added that the town had few escape routes and dilapidated wooden buildings.
According to Swain, “all indications point to a sort of worst-case scenario—a wildland-urban interface firestorm that occurred amid a severe downslope windstorm, with gusts up to or even over 80 miles per hour, in a highly vulnerable community on the dry side of the island of Maui—amidst moderate to severe drought conditions.”
Strong high pressure to the north of Hawaii was the source of the strong winds. At that time, Hurricane Dora was also moving south of the islands, and it’s possible that this caused a significant pressure gradient between the hurricane’s low pressure and the north’s preexisting high pressure. This would have increased the winds.Scientists continue to disagree, according to Swain, over how much the hurricane itself may have contributed to the winds.
Complex Role of Climate Change
Additionally, some social media posts attempted to refute the idea that climate change played a role in the fires.
The post claiming it was suspicious that not all trees or utility poles burned had the caption, “What happened in Maui was no wild fire, and it certainly wasnt climate change.”
While there are other factors that contribute to wildfires, climate change is not the only one. That framing doesn’t work.
According to Swain, “even though there were multiple other aggravating factors that probably contributed to… a large degree of why this event was so catastrophic,” climate change “probably did play a role in why the vegetation was as dry as it was.”
“In this instance, it might not have been the primary factor,” he continued. However, it is present.
According to Swain, climate change may play a more significant role in other wildfires, like the ones that are currently occurring in Canada. The location and prevalence of invasive grasses, which have taken over abandoned sugarcane plantations and make up nearly 25% of Hawaii’s landmass, were probably a bigger problem in the Maui fires.
However, over time, Hawaii has grown hotter, and there has been a long-term trend toward drier weather on the leeward side of the Hawaiian Islands, which is consistent with climate change predictions, according to Swain. More so than otherwise, he said, “that would be consistent with an influence on the drying of the vegetation.”
He stated that although climate change may not have affected whether a fire started in the first place, it may have made it simpler for the fire to spread swiftly.
Although it is more conjectural, Swain continued, climate change may have also contributed to the humidity being lower during the wind event.