Photos don’t show evidence of government ‘laser weapons’ starting wildfires

17 August 2023
What was claimed

Several photos show evidence for claims a powerful government direct energy laser weapon was the cause of several wildfires.

Our verdict

There’s no evidence a government weapon or ‘direct energy laser’ caused any of the recent wildfires. The pictures used as evidence do not show evidence of this.

A post on Facebook says: “I'm not saying a powerful government weapon started these wildfires but someone explain these pics to me”. The accompanying pictures appear to show fires in various locations alongside beams of light.

These photos don’t show a “powerful government weapon” starting wildfires. One photo is of a rocket launch, another shows a lens flare of a photo taken of a fire in a forest and another is of a controlled fire at a refinery. 

Another post features one of the same images, with the caption: “California, Greece, Australia and now Maui fire were all started using direct energy lasers as shown in this photo”.

There is no evidence that a weapon or “direct energy laser” caused the recent wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, which at the time of writing had killed at least 110 people, or any other similar events this year in Europe and North Africa. 

Directed energy weapons are systems that emit laser or radio frequency energy in order to cause disruptive, damaging or destructive effects on equipment or facilities, such as deterring people from an area or damaging drones.

Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado Boulder, told AP: “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”.

While a single cause of the Maui fires hasn’t yet been determined, it’s been suggested that strong winds may have blown down active power lines igniting some fires but this has not been confirmed

The US National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning for the island, which indicates that conditions such as high winds, low humidity, dry vegetation and a lack of rainfall could produce an increased risk of dangerous fires. 

We have checked other baseless claims that the wildfires in Maui were caused by ‘directed energy weapons’. Misinformation can spread rapidly online in the midst of breaking news events like this, and it can be difficult to halt the spread of these false claims. We have seen this pattern of misinformation many times, with recent examples including multiple false claims about riots in France earlier this summer and the February earthquake in Turkey

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None of the pictures were taken in Hawaii

The picture in the Facebook post claiming to show evidence of “direct energy lasers” was originally tweeted on 24 May 2018 by an account for the Klamath National Forest, about a fire that occurred in the area. 

Addressing the glare in the photo, the account said in a subsequent tweet: “Hi everyone. It is a lens flare. This photo was taken by our wildland firefighters, who are very busy this summer protecting life and property.” 

Another one of the pictures shown in the Facebook post featuring multiple images was taken during a SpaceX rocket launch in May 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The photo doesn’t show a laser, but is taken using long exposure, which is a technique that involves capturing a single image over an extended period of time, making moving subjects appear as blurs. Other images of SpaceX launches show a similar visual effect.

The upper middle picture in the Facebook post is more than five years old and was first shared in response to a local paper in Ohio asking readers if they had any pictures of a controlled burn at a nearby refinery. According to AP, Travis Secrest, who took the photo said, “I was standing at my parent’s house, all you could see was essentially the light column”.

The beam in the image may be a light pillar—a column of light appearing to come from a light source, visible during cold weather due to ice crystals. They can appear above streetlights, above or below the moon and at sunrise or sunset if the conditions are right, although the pillars aren’t actually directly above the object. 

Other, less typical light sources can also create light pillars, like erupting volcanoes

Full Fact was not able to find the original context in which the image on the right was taken, but it first started appearing online in 2018 alongside similar unevidenced claims that a laser weapon caused the 2018 Woolsey fire in California, which investigators later concluded was sparked by a utility company’s equipment.

Image courtesy of Mike McMillan/USFS

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