California's Wildfires Have Spawned A Truly Weird New Conspiracy Theory

Cars destroyed by the Camp Fire sit in the lot at a used car dealership on November 9, 2018 in Paradise, California. (Photo: Getty Images)

This month, California has been gripped by three devastating wildfires: Northern California's Camp Fire, which recently became the deadliest in the state's history, and, in Southern California, the Woolsey and Hill Fires. An emerging, deeply weird conspiracy theory holds that those fires aren't caused by wind patterns, brutally dry conditions, the worsening effects of climate change, or possible downed power lines, but by a sinister scheme directed by nefarious elements within the government.

The claim, being taken up by an increasing number of people in QAnon circles, is that the fires are caused by "directed energy weapons" — that is, government-directed lasers bent on destroying homes, property, and lives. And if recent history is any judge, there's a chance the country's biggest conspiracy-pedlars, up to and including the one who lives in the White House, will take up the cause.

Directed energy weapons, or DEWs, have an interesting place in conspiratorial circles. DEWs are, to begin with, a real technology, but one still in its infancy: a report produced for Congress describes that term as an umbrella to refer to technologies "that produce concentrated electromagnetic energy and atomic or subatomic particles."

The consensus is that there are a number of logistical issues to work out before that the US government will be able to build a laser system that would actually be workable on a battlefield, but that the Department of Defence and private contractors are eager to leverage laser power towards killing people and/or destroying enemy missiles, aircraft, or satellites.

If you ask people in the deep end of the conspiracy theory pool, though, DEWs are here already. There's a small body of people who believe themselves to be "targeted individuals" — stalked, harassed, and attacked by the government or other shadowy groups — and at least some of them believe those attacks are being carried out by DEWs.

Now, through a strange confluence of forces, the paranoia over DEWs is making its way into the discussion about natural disasters. What we're seeing is a convergence of longstanding American fears about government mind control and manipulation of the weather merging with climate change scepticism, as climate science becomes ever-more-politicised.

Like many conspiracy theories, it's not entirely possible to trace where the DEW theories came from. As best I can tell, one of the earliest promoters of that claim was a flat-earth YouTuber going by the name ODD Reality (real name Matt Procella), who started talking about DEWs during the devastating wildfires that raged across California in October 2017.

"You'll notice here that stores and restaurants are wiped out, while other things are still in perfect shape," Procella intones, over still images of fire damage, some of them sourced, he says, from a Serbian conspiracy site (and some of which appear to be computer-generated). "Other buildings are fine, trees are untouched, but specific structures are just devastated. You gotta ask yourself, what's up with that ... Is this the result of direct energy weapons? Ranged weapons that inflict damage on a target by emitting highly-focused energy? The answer is most likely yes."

There's actually a fair amount of research to explain why some structures are destroyed and some are spared during a wildfire that has nothing to do with laser weapons. But the broader point Procella is trying to make is about intent: Someone is deliberately destroying certain buildings.

That point, though, gets a little mushy. He speculates that "all these things" are a "distraction from the Vegas incident," by which he means the mass shooting in Las Vegas that month that killed 58 people.

Elsewhere, the question of why the government would spend its time pointing lasers at people's houses and Burger Kings has been made somewhat clearer. The left-leaning March Against Monsanto site, which often engages in conspiracy theorising about GMOs, ran a speculative article about DEWs, reasoning that they could be just another form of government manipulation.

People who believe in chemtrails are also concerned about DEWs, and have a more fully fleshed-out explanation for what they're meant to do. ("Chemtrails" are harmless condensation trails left by aircrafts, but since the late 1990s, a conspiratorial community has been raising concerns that they're actually toxic, potentially mind-controlling chemicals.) On one chemtrail-oriented site, Chemtrail Planet, an unnamed author speculates that last year's fires were part of a joint plan by FEMA and the United Nations to institute more centralised global control, what they called "Agenda 30."

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is actually a resolution passed in 2015 by the General Assembly, promising to do a host of things to make the world better by 2030, including "taking urgent action on climate change." Like every UN action, conspiracy theorists claim it's mean to institute a centralised one-world government, and like always, that is not true.

There's also evidence that DEWs are becoming part of the cosmology of the QAnon crowd, a remarkably pliant group who have proven that they're able to incorporate just about anything into their belief system. (QAnon, for the uninitiated, is the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is secretly doing a really good job, and is this close to uncovering and disarming various evil forces working against him within the government.)

The hashtag #DEW has begun to show up in QAnon-oriented Twitter conversations, with several much-retweeted Tweets imploring Trump to take action.

Yet another version of the DEWs story claims that the wildfires were directed in such a way to destroy structures in order to make way for a high-speed rail system, part of a Democrat plot. That's right: the US government is destroying vast swaths of trees, houses and infrastructure to force people to ride the train. That tweeted idea is also tagged with several QAnon-related hashtags.

Inevitably, the conspiracy theory is migrating to bigger and bigger accounts. On Thursday, a far-right internet personality and QAnon booster named Mike Tokes, who has 170,000 Twitter followers, aggressively took up the cause, using the same line of argument: some homes burned, others didn't, thus lasers must be at work.

The DEW theory is inextricably tied to scepticism about the very idea of climate change, a sense that global warming is just the cover explanation for the various sinister plots at work against us. It's also, of course, tied to longstanding conspiracy theories about the government controlling the weather, such as the idea that the US government already has a weather control tool called HAARP, which it also uses for "electromagnetic warfare."

(HAARP is actually a much less exciting research program that studies the uppermost levels of our atmosphere and was years run by the Air Force and University of Alaska Fairbanks. Since 2015, UAF has run it alone, albeit on Air Force land, and has produced a very patient FAQ explaining that HAARP does not exert mind control over people.)

Weather and climate conspiracists are, though, not a big group of people, says John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University who also runs a site called Sceptical Science that outlines the shoddy science and arguments behind global warming scepticism.

"Climate change conspiracy theories may seem more popular but they're still very marginal," Cook told Gizmodo. "The proportion of the US public who are dismissive about climate change is about nine per cent. You don't want to overstate their importance because that can have a negative effect."

That said, there may well be a broader swath of the public that is open to conspiracy theories and denialism, if not hardcore about them. For instance, a survey on chemtrails from last year that found up to 30 per cent of people polled thought they may be "somewhat real". And recent polls show most US Republicans still believe global warming concerns are exaggerated, and that the partisan divide on the issue is growing.

Climate change scepticism and other, more out-there forms of conspiracy theorising about the weather have a few things in common, Cook said. "There is a similarity in that it's trying to make sense of disturbing events by imaging these patterns."

But there's also an important distinction. "Climate conspiracy theories tend to be an attempt to explain why there's a scientific consensus on climate change," usually by invoking a vast conspiracy among the world's climate scientists. "Whereas space laser wildfires are — kind of — "

Cook paused for a moment, politely.

"They're an isolated single event thing," he finished. "As opposed to a more systematic, holistic explanation of the whole climate."

Social media, particularly Twitter, has helped the spread of conspiracy theories about the climate, Cook said. He and his colleagues have studied how to "inoculate" people against misinformation (and even made a handy video about it), but he admits it's an uphill battle.

"It's difficult," he said. "Conspiracy theories are the hardest thing to counter. They're so nihilistic, and any attempt to rebut them is seen as more evidence of the conspiracy theory. But the general rule is the way to counter the myth is to replace it with a stickier fact."

One issue, Cook said, is that conspiracy theories can cause people to shut down and stop looking for what's true: "There's a danger that they'll disengage and just stop believing in facts."

And the facts are plenty terrifying on their own: These fires have already been hellaciously destructive, the deadliest in a century or more, with at least 63 people dead in the Camp Fire alone, three more killed in the Woolsey fire, more than 600 missing, thousands of hectares burned, homes destroyed and lives devastated. The US president is already engaged in smears and misinformation, bizarrely claiming that "forest management" was to blame for fires that didn't even originate in forests.

Though the causes of the fires are still under investigation, there's evidence that a downed PG&E power line could have potentially sparked the Camp Fire. There's evidence that public policy and regulation simply aren't working, given that PG&E electrical equipment was found responsible for 17 of 21 wildfires in Northern California last fall, and that climate change is only making the situation worse.

And there's deep inequality at work, given that working-class communities like Paradise are all but destroyed, while wealthier areas are able to hire their own firefighters to battle the blazes. 

And if those facts aren't deemed worthy of engagement — if people instead retreat into fantasy and rumour and innuendo — there's the fact that the next fire isn't far away. It's simply waiting for its spark.

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