Videos promoting the conspiracy theory have earned hundreds of thousands of views on sites including YouTube and Twitter since the fires started. The laser-fire believers have even borrowed rhetoric from 9/11 truthers.
“Forest fires cannot melt steel beams,” far-right social media consultant Mike Tokes wrote in a viral series of tweets, echoing 9/11 conspiracy theorists’ famous and famously mistaken claim that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.”
The idea that the fires were created to make way for a rail line rests primarily on a graphic that purports to compare the areas damaged by fire with the layout of the California high speed rail system.
“California ‘wildfires’ line up EXACTLY in the same path as the ‘California High Speed Rail System,’” the graphic reads.
In fact, as Snopes points out, the graphic is incredibly misleading, comparing fire advisory areas, rather than actual burned areas, to an outdated map of the proposed high-speed rail. When compared to a current map of the rail plan, the two graphics don’t match up at all.
That didn’t stop Tokes, who has palled around with white nationalist figures like Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, from pushing the idea in a Twitter thread that racked up more than 20,000 retweets.
“WOW: This is highly coincidental,” Tokes wrote. “It appears the CA wildfires line up in the same path as the plans for the California High Speed Rail System.”
The idea of powerful lasers shot being used to create fake wildfires has appeared before, most prominently in a 2017 video that appeared another time California was facing serious wildfires.
In that clip, which has received hundreds of thousands of views, an unnamed narrator “analyzes” a burned-down Arby’s and claims the lasers were fired to distract from the Las Vegas massacre.
“Is this the result of direct energy weapons?” the narrator says. “The answer is most likely yes.”
As proof, the laser truthers offer videos and pictures that show some buildings totally demolished by the fires, while other structures just a few hundred feet away from them look fine. Thus, laser weapons.
“Single homes were burned down with no damage to neighboring homes,” Tokes tweeted. “Can anyone explain this?”
But experts, who say it’s not unusual for wildfires to spare some structures while totally destroying others, can explain this. Daniel Leavell, a forest agent and assistant professor at Oregon State University, told The Daily Beast that fires are driven by a variety of complicated factors, including wind, that can produce surprising burn patterns.
“What you can see on a landscape is that whole areas could be totally unburned,” Leavell said.
Backers of the laser theory have also cited pictures that show metal pooling around scorched cars as proof that lasers are behind the fires. Pictures of the pools of melted metal have proliferated on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, supposedly as proof that a laser was involved.
But, according to Leavell, fires can “most definitely” melt some of the lighter metals used in cars.
“It’s certainly going to melt everything aluminum in its path,” Leavell said.
In an email to The Daily Beast about his tweets, Tokes insisted he was “just reposting some memes from Instagram.”
Conspiracy theories aren’t uncommon after catastrophic fires, according to Leavell, an issue that’s only been complicated by social media.
“There’s a lot of bogus claims,” Leavell said.