Green Technology

How Conspiracy Theories About Direct Energy Weapons Taught Me Something About EV Battery Safety

Lahaina was a town of immense historic value. It was the first capital of Hawaii, from 1820 to 1845. It was the place where the first constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii was signed. It had numerous historic buildings, including the old court house. A modest palace had been partly built, but it was still unfinished when King Kamehameha III decided to move the capital to Honolulu, in 1845.

A tree planted behind the court house in 1873 is the largest banyan tree in the United States. Its canopy covers two-thirds of an acre. It can be so big because banyan trees have a weird way of putting down roots from their branches, forming new “trunks.” This year, the tree is 150 years old. It was damaged badly in the fire, but it may survive.

Because Lahaina was a beautiful and historic town, a number of rich people and organizations wanted to own all or part of it. It seemed to be wishful thinking, because a large part of the population believe that the Lahaina is a sacred place, and to some people, “sacred” means, in fact, sacred. Believe it or not, such people often put sacred values above even cash money.

Now, Lahaina is in ruins. According to a report from National Public Radio, when Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen was asked about how many of its buildings had been damaged, he said: “I’m telling you, none of it’s there. It’s all burned to the ground.” A fact check says that he was not quite 100% correct — but not quite 100% is entirely awful.

The fire moved astonishingly fast once it was under way. Early in the day of the big fire, there was a brush fire, and residents were warned, but that fire was soon declared 100% contained. Then, only hours after that, winds with gusts of up to 80 mph started downing electric lines and spreading fires. The fires spread at speeds of up to 60 mph. Meanwhile, electric power was down, and no alarm sounded.

What would you do, if you looked out your window and saw a fire coming down the street toward you at 60 mph? You don’t have time to start your car. You don’t even have time to get to your car. And you can’t run away because it’s faster than you are. Very few people have ever seen anything like the Lahaina fire. It seems amazing that some people survived.

When things go wrong, it is human nature to try to understand why. And when they have no acceptable explanation, they try to find one. Unfortunately, in our society, most people do not have much understanding of science, and so they are often willing to accept even the most tenuous conspiracy theories. (Disclosure: I believe in a few conspiracy theories myself. The most important of them might be that I believe some people out there are inventing and spreading lots of conspiracy theories.)

Of course, there are now more conspiracy theories about Lahaina than I can count. Most of these seem to search for answers to questions that I think should be obvious. A few ask questions that puzzle me. A few might even be impossible to answer. But I wanted to find out what questions were out there and what answers were being suggested. I spent hours looking, and here are some of what I found:

  • Why were there so many explosions? – When you have high winds and live wires, the wires can break, producing electric arcs – bright flashes that seem to be explosions. Also, tires blow up when they get sufficiently hot. So do carbon dioxide tanks and propane tanks. I once saw a scuba tank that was opened up on a neat seam running its full length and laid flat because a fire pushed its internal pressure too far. Lots of reasons for explosions.

  • Why did there seem to be beams from the sky that caused the explosions? – Got me. My guess is that it had something to do with a camera lens being dirty, but that’s just a guess. Of course we can’t prove it wasn’t aliens. They leave very few tracks, I’m told.

  • Could the fires have been spread by directed energy weapons (DEW)? – I would say probably not, because such weapons are generally highly focused, as lasers are. The only kind of DEW I know of that is not highly focused uses directed sound, which is unlikely to start or spread a fire. This is not my area of expertise. Of course, I might guess that I don’t know less than the people spreading the theory. Just a guess.

  • How can a fire cross a large area with no vegetation and concrete wall as barriers? And how did all the boats in the harbor catch fire? – If you know much US history, you should know the answer. The Peshtigo Fire, which burned in Wisconsin in 1871, was our worst in terms of lives lost. It depopulated whole towns. It is believed to have jumped Green Bay, which is at least ten miles across. We cannot know that it did for certain. But we do know that some things that could be identified were found, charred, several miles from where they had been. Winds blow things around, including embers that can start fires. Some people believe that the Peshtigo fire jumped Lake Michigan and started forest fires on the other side. Jumping past a few dozen yards of dirt isn’t much to build a conspiracy theory on.

  • Was the fire started by people and organizations who wanted to buy land in Lahaina that no one was willing to sell? – The thought is that by burning the place down, the people who wanted the land could buy it cheaply and develop it as they wished. This idea has a striking problem. The city had value because it was beautiful and historic. Burn it down and it would be neither. That might make developing it for profit rather difficult. Why people would spread such an idea, I don’t know.

  • Finally: How did rows of cars all burn up, one after another? – Wow! What a frightening thing to have happen! Do you suppose that maybe it was because they all had gasoline in them? No, Really! Gasoline burns like gasoline! I am not exaggerating.

It is true that modern gas tanks don’t usually blow up. They are made not to do that. A minor problem with their new design, however, is that they can fail in other ways. They are no longer made of metal, which can get pinholes in it. Instead, they are made of plastic. (Plastic‽ What‽)

What does plastic do when it gets too hot? It sags and distorts, and then it fails, possibly catching fire. Is it possible that some car caught fire, and then the gas tank failed and dumped gasoline on the ground, where it flowed like a stream afire to the next car over? Could one car after another similarly fail? Could that go on until there is nothing left but hulks?

I don’t know whether my theory about gasoline spreading fires is correct. It’s just a somewhat educated theory. It is not a conspiracy theory, because there is no conspiracy. But it does leave me with a question: Would long lines of cars have all burned the way they did if they were all full electric? I feel certain that some conspiracy theorists would tell everybody the EVs would burn as badly as gas-powered cars, but that has one serious problem: To make such an observation, they would have to admit that gas-powered cars might be just as dangerous as EVs.

I think I may have learned something about EV safety from this theory experiment. It is that CleanTechnica was right about the relative safety of EVs and gas-burning cars. I mean, I knew that already, but I learned it again, better.

If your understanding is better than mine, please let me know. Wisdom bears repeating. In this case, it needs repeating.

By the way, a really interesting video was put together by ABC News. It shows some the reasons why the fire spread so fast. You can see it HERE.


I don’t like paywalls. You don’t like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don’t like paywalls, and so we’ve decided to ditch ours.

Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It’s a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So …