Jun 02, 2023
A video doesn’t show a laser beam igniting Maui’s wildfires. It’s a transformer explosion in Chile
This photo provided by County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. The
This photo provided by County of Maui shows fire and smoke filling the sky from wildfires on the intersection at Hokiokio Place and Lahaina Bypass in Maui, Hawaii on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. The Associated Press on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 reported on social media posts falsely claiming that a video showing a flash of light and an explosion along a busy roadway proved that a laser beam sparked the wildfires on the Hawaiian island. (Zeke Kalua/County of Maui via AP)
CLAIM: Video of a flash of light and an explosion along a busy roadway proves a laser beam shot down from the sky sparked the wildfires in Hawaii.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The widely shared video shows a transformer explosion in Chile earlier this year. Additionally, a laser weapons expert tells The Associated Press that an attack by a directed energy weapon, as some online posts claim the video shows, would not be visible since its laser beam would be infrared.
THE FACTS: Social media users are claiming a video shows a laser beam from a so-called directed energy weapon shooting down from space and igniting the deadly fires on the island of Maui this month.
The clip opens with a view of a busy roadway in a mostly residential community of red-roofed homes and apartment high rises with snow capped mountains in the background. Suddenly, a bolt of light seemingly from the sky appears to strike an object on the ground, briefly igniting it in flames.
“Disturbing New FOOTAGE from Maui fires shows what allegedly happened,” wrote one Twitter user who shared the clip, which is among a number that have been misleadingly shared on social media in recent days, fueling conspiracy theories about the wildfires that have claimed nearly 100 lives and are the deadliest in the country in more than a century.
Hawaiian authorities say the cause of the wildfires remains under investigation, but a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane fanned the flames.
“DEW’s Terrible Revelation in MAUI,” wrote another user on Instagram. “Prepare to step into a world forever changed by a sinister turn of events. In a shocking episode, we uncover the harrowing truth behind the recent deployment of Direct Energy Weapons.”
However the brief video doesn’t show the famous Hawaiian island but rather an incident months ago in a suburb of Santiago, Chile, more than 6,000 miles away in South America.
The video was posted on TikTok on May 25 by a user who said it was taken by a friend in the community of Macul. It has since been viewed more than 9 million times.
The clip was featured four days later in a report on Chilevision News, which said that a transformer exploded in strong winds, creating the brilliant flash of light caught on video.
The station noted the clip immediately sparked speculation that it was caused by a foreign military attack or even a hostile incursion from outer space.
“No, it wasn’t an alien attack or a military attack,” the reporter, Javiera Salazar, says in Spanish after interviewing a number of local residents. “It wasn’t even lightning, much less artificial intelligence. It was a generator explosion.”
Humberto Verdejo, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Santiago de Chile, told the station that intense winds that day likely caused a tree branch to strike the electrical equipment suspended above ground, triggering the explosion.
Salazar added that the streak of light from the sky is likely a reflection captured by the camera, which gives the illusion of a lightning strike.
Indeed, playing the video back frame-by-frame shows a small burst of light from the location near the ground before the beam of light is seen in the sky, suggesting the explosion caused the beam, not the other way around.
In any event, a shot from a directed energy weapon wouldn’t be visible, notes Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado in Boulder who studies DEWs.
“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,” he explained in an email.
What’s more, Boyd said, the kinds of high energy lasers being developed for military uses require huge amounts of power, meaning they’ve so far been firmly planted on Earth, and not deployed in space, as some social media users suggest.
“Payloads the size of trucks can be launched into space,” he wrote. “The bigger problem is generating the 300 kW of power.”___This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.