Photo showing ‘selective’ fires in Maui is actually from San Diego in 2003

17 August 2023
What was claimed

A photo shows the aftermath of recent fires in Maui. It claims the fires were ‘selective’ because the trees survived while the houses burned down.

Our verdict

The photo actually shows a neighbourhood in San Diego following a wildfire in 2003. There are several theories for why the trees didn’t catch fire.

A post on Facebook falsely claims to show the aftermath of fires in Maui, Hawaii. However, the photo actually comes from San Diego, California, in 2003. 

The photo shows a street of houses that have been burned down while the surrounding trees remain standing. The image is headed with the word “Maui”, and text on the photo says: “The most selective forest fire in history”. This appears to suggest the recent fires were somehow planned.

Wildfires began on Maui on 8 August. At the time of writing, more than 100 people are reported to have died with 1,000 people estimated to be missing. 

A reverse image search reveals the photo actually shows a neighbourhood in San Diego called Scripps Ranch following the 2003 Cedar Fire. This was the largest wildland fire in California’s history at the time until 2012, destroying over 2,000 homes and killing 15 people. The image, which has been shared widely online in relation to other fires, reportedly shows a street surrounded by eucalyptus trees.

There are several theories as to why the trees didn’t catch fire, including that the forest floor was moist, had less flammable vegetation and was sheltered from the wind, with wind corridors thought to have contributed to the significant property damage. 

One research paper suggests “the agent that spread fire from building to building was not the vegetation, but rather radiant heat or embers from the neighbouring structures that were burning”. It emphasises the role of high winds driving these embers. 

There has been significant debate over the role of eucalyptus trees in wildfires in California. 

Full Fact has seen other false claims relating to the fire in Maui, including that photos show the fires were started using energy directed weapons or explosions. Full Fact has seen misinformation spread quickly during large scale events such as the recent riots in France, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This can add to confusion and risk accurate information not reaching people. 

Image courtesy of US Civil Air Patrol

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