Do an unburned blue car and beach umbrella seen in a social-media video about the August 2023 wildfire that ravaged the town of Lahaina on Hawaii's island of Maui prove that lasers caused the blaze since the color blue can resist lasers? No, that's not true: The video that touted this widespread claim was marked "For entertainment only." Two additional videos supporting the claim are without scientific validity, according to a laser specialist from Oregon's Willamette University. Images from TV, social media and Google Earth show that the fire made no systematic distinction between blue and non-blue objects.
The focus of this fact check is a video (archived here), bearing the TikTok logo, that was reposted on the YouTube account @laserversus2688 on August 19, 2023. Titled "Laser vs blue umbrella. Maui fire," the video features a graphic that cautions, "For entertainment only."
This is how the video appeared on YouTube at the time of the writing of this fact check.
(Source: YouTube screenshot taken on Mon Sep 11 16:29:00 2023 UTC)
The video's male narrator goes on to state:
There was something blue they didn't want to burn
The footage then shifts to shots of a blue car and blue umbrella that the fire apparently did not severely damage:
(Source: YouTube screenshot taken on Mon Sep 11 18:39:00 2023 UTC)
Though the video is marked "For entertainment only," Lead Stories has provided a fact check in response to the proliferation of the video's claim.
The video comes from the TikTok account of @laser_versus, which posts videos showing how various things react to lasers. Two of these videos, in particular, provided the foundation for the claim made in the short on YouTube.
After the August 8, 2023 fires on Maui, several conspiracy theories began to develop. One theory was the fires were ignited by directed energy weapons (DEW) or some sort of space laser. On August 18, 2023, 10 days after the wildfire reached Lahaina, @laser_versus posted on TikTok a video titled, "Laser vs lahaina?" This video, tagged "For general information purposes only," seems to demonstrate that a laser will burn wood blocks and toy metal cars, but not leafy plants or blue toweling that objects were on (screenshot from the video is below). A caption, "Blue rags are wet so they don't burn" offers a practical explanation for part of the demonstration.
The following day, on August 19, 2023, @laser_versus posted on TikTok a video called "Laser vs Blue" video. This video, which has since been removed from TikTok, showed two different lasers taking a pass across an assortment of yellow, red, green, white and blue towels. The lasers burnt or scorched all of the towels except the blue one.
Playing off the conspiracy theory that lasers had ignited the fires on Maui, the "Laser vs Blue" narrator makes the same claim seen in the video that is the focus of this fact check: "There was something blue they didn't want to burn".
On August 28, 2023, @laser_versus posted "Laser vs different colors." This video shows a similar setup as "Laser vs Blue," but the demonstration, as seen below, purports to show that the lasers can be set to avoid burning certain colors.
The operator changes a setting on a display screen (below left) bearing the company name, Shenzhen RelFar Intelligent Technology CO., LTD. In the first test, with the laser supposedly set to 1 kHZ, the laser completely burns through the blue and yellow towels, but the green towel does not burn. The settings are then changed back to 5 kHZ. This time, the blue towel does not burn, but the yellow and green towels do.
For an evaluation of these latter two videos, Lead Stories contacted Karen McFarlane Holman, a professor of chemistry at Oregon's Willamette University who conducted her doctorate research with infrared, visible and ultraviolet lasers. We asked her to review the "Laser vs Blue" (video #1) and "Laser vs different colors" (video #2) videos, and to share her impressions.
Holman responded by email on September 7, 2023, with a few critical observations.
She noted that a laser burning a towel is reasonable since lasers can cut and burn many materials, including steel. She also noted that lasers in the visible spectrum emit different colors. Blue lasers are especially useful for welding copper, gold, titanium, and a few other metals.
But the videos used to support the theory that blue items in Lahaina could resist laser-ignited fires contain factual mistakes, Holman indicated:
- The frequencies of laser light shown in Video #2 do not correspond to light visible to the human eye or to blue light. The video attempts to show the difference between frequencies of light at 1 kHz (300,000 meters) and 5 kHz (60,000 meters), but blue light has a wavelength many orders of magnitude smaller -- approximately 0.00000045 meters.
There are no known lasers that emit light at the extremely long frequencies of either 1 kHz or 5 kHz. Both frequencies would carry far less energy than the longest wavelength of an AM radio signal.
- Lasers set to a power of 1500 watts (as shown in video #2) can cut through materials because of the concentrated amount of energy that they transfer to the materials. The color of the material itself -- in video #2, a blue cloth towel - has no impact on whether or not the material can resist fire. Welders who use lasers with these power settings, for instance, can cut through different types of materials with various colors.
- Dyes that are used in cloth materials are organic compounds that degrade with exposure to sun and detergents. Dyes of different colors have similar chemical structures and, thus, will behave similarly when exposed to a laser set to 1500 watts. Like any other color, a blue dye will be destroyed along with the cloth fiber itself.
The "blue didn't burn" conspiracy theory relies on images cherry-picked to support its claims and on the fact that the blue items that did burn in Lahaina did not leave evidence behind to disprove the theory.
But objects of other colors also survived the fires in Lahaina.
At 0:25 seconds, the "Laser vs Blue" video (below left) featured a blue car surrounded by burnt shells of cars on Lahaina's Front Street. This blue car is directly behind a white Toyota RAV4 (below right), which, like the blue car, sustained less damage than many other vehicles on the block.
(Source: Lead stories composite image with TikTok and YouTube screenshots taken on Fri Sep 08 22:19:35 2023 UTC)
One white Front Street house (pictured below left) in a CBS News Video, stands apparently undamaged in a burned neighborhood. The 100-year-old wooden residence had recently received a new red steel roof, and flammable landscaping had been cleared away from the foundation, the homeowner told a local media outlet. (The residence also appeared in an NPR article.)
Google Earth shows that at the other end of Front Street, on Kai Pali Place, three oceanfront homes with blue roofs were destroyed along with many others, while several homes across the street, including two with orange roofs, still stand. (Google Earth's before and after images pictured below right)
(Source: Lead Stories composite image with YouTube and Google Earth screenshots taken on Fri Sep 08 23:15:26 2023 UTC)
Additional Lead Stories fact checks of false claims about the wildfires on Maui can be found here.