California Wildfire Conspiracy Theories Are Spreading Like the Plague

It's a lot less messy to just believe the lies.

When disaster strikes, conspiracy theorists get to work blaming shadow networks of evil-doers. And the 2018 California wildfires are no exception. On Monday morning, the official tally of deaths from the three concurrent fires rose to 80, while the number of missing persons totaled 993, reports NPR. And while the official investigation into the causes of the fires remains open, conspiracy theorists on the internet claim they’ve got the answer: directed energy weapons mounted on aircraft. That’s right — laser planes.

The short version of this conspiracy theory says that directed energy weapons mounted on airplanes are being used to start fires throughout California, destroying homes, forests, and lives. As with any conspiracy theory, it starts with a grain of truth, which gets stretched to its limits by illusory pattern perception — the cognitive fallacy of linking unrelated pieces of information into a pattern. Then, as in any conspiracy theory, bullshit picks up where reality and guesswork leave off.

Let’s dig in.

Where Did the Airplane Laser Conspiracy Theory Start?

Since the 2018 California fires started raging, mentions of directed energy weapons have permeated the conspiracy-hungry QAnon community, with photos and videos purporting to prove that something foul is afoot because some houses and trees burned while others remained intact. Then on November 14, far-right poster Mike Tokes started spreading the idea to his 172,000 Twitter followers, which is when the idea reached the attention of mainstream media outlets. He even shared suspicious photos that “prove” lasers came down from the sky and started the fires — and he started harassing journalists who questioned his claims.

This idea didn’t start with Tokes, though. He’s one of many to spread it this fall, but the seed was planted long before.

As conspiracy theory expert Anna Merlan reports for Earther, YouTuber ODD Reality seems to be one of the very first to float this idea. He started posting videos about it in 2017, while that year’s fires ravaged California. In the video below, he follows a similar logic as Tokes: Why are some buildings burnt while others appear unscathed? Along with images that appear to have been altered, he includes an extremely timely reference to Austin Powers.

Is There Any Truth to It?

Like all conspiracy theories, this one has some basis in reality, albeit a very small one. The US government is working on directed energy weapons, though they’re far from being useful for a purpose like setting forests and houses ablaze.

Weaponized lasers are far from ready for primetime.

John F. Williams/U.S. Navy

In April, Jared Keller reported in the independent military news outlet Task & Purpose that a US Air Force project to arm planes with lasers was behind schedule due to budgetary shortfalls. So while the idea of directed energy weapons on an airplane is not so farfetched, evidence suggests that they’re not yet operational.

Who Benefits From This Conspiracy Theory?

Any convincing conspiracy theory usually includes an answer to one major question: Who benefits? Sure, a conspiracy theory usually includes lies, deception, and misdirection at every level of government, but for a conspiracy theory to make any sense, some motivating factor should underlie it. Someone must stand to benefit from the supposed conspiracy.

For instance, someone who believes that 9/11 was an inside job may also believe that President George W. Bush’s administration blew up the World Trade Centers to create a pretext to go to war in the Middle East. In the case of flat-Earth theory, some have suggested that Jewish “globalists” are behind the deception, though the benefit to them is extremely vague.

But in the case of the California wildfire, who would benefit from wiping out homes and wildlife habitats?

Given that this conspiracy theory seems to have taken root among the largely right-wing QAnon community, it comes as little surprise that some are blaming Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein. On Friday, in a post to the conspiracy theory Facebook group “Chemtrails Global Skywatch,” a member named Marilyn Schaepe shared a graphic that shows side-by-side maps of the wildfire and California’s proposed high-speed rail system. The post appeared earlier on Stokes’ November 14 thread:

The maps show a clear similarity between the range of the fires and the proposed path of a high-speed rail system, suggesting that supporters of the controversial train could be using the fires to get rid of the homes and forests standing in the way of the rail corridor.

Much like the bulk of QAnon hypotheses, it sounds like a plot right out of a movie. And that’s the problem with these ideas: They wrap a complex situation up into a neat little narrative, one that implicates the people conspiracy theorists hate and exonerates the ones they like. After all, in a world where decades of rampant suburban growth, drought, and forest management have left California vulnerable to forest fires, isn’t it much easier to just believe that some evil-doers are setting fires with lasers? It’s much more difficult to grapple with the messy, multi-faceted facts of reality. That’s why conspiracy theories just feel better.