Wildfires have been sweeping across Europe this summer. The infernos intensified by record-high heatwaves have affected countries like the United Kingdom, France and Spain, destroying lands and forcing thousands of people to evacuate for safety.
Outside Europe, the United States has also faced the threat of wildfires. The large-scale Oak Fire in California in late July resulted in over 18,000 acres of a national park being burnt.
As the situation continues to escalate, unverified claims about the causes of wildfires circulated online, many of which cast doubt about their connection to climate change.
Annie Lab looked into two misleading video clips on social media:
- A video showing a helicopter setting fire in the forest
- A video showing soldiers burning trees with a flamethrower
Misleading: Video shows a controlled burn to prevent wildfire
On July 21, a Twitter user uploaded a video showing a helicopter with a device that seems to be spraying a flammable substance on trees and setting them ablaze.
The tweet claimed this is the cause of the wildfire and implied with an emoji that climate change is a “joke.”
The tweet has been shared about 3,500 times and gained 5,100 likes at the time of writing. The same video with a similar claim was shared on Weibo as well.
However, this is misleading. The video actually shows a prescribed fire, or a controlled fire, a method of forest management to minimize the risk of wildfires.
The account describes that the operation in Hualapai Mountains was using a helitorch as a purposeful burn to make natural fires “less destructive” while improving “forage conditions for wildlife and livestock.”
Annie Lab reached out to the Bureau and they confirmed that the viral video on social media is the same clip they shot during the Beecher Prescribed Fire operation in 2017.
Dolores Garcia, Public Affairs Specialist from the BLM Arizona office, said in an email that prescribed fire is a regular operation of vegetation management across the country.
She said a helitorch, a larger aerial ignition tool used in firefighting, is used to reduce vegetation density and improve wildlife habitats or lower wildfire risks. The Beecher Prescribed Fire shown in the video was aimed to improve mule deer habitat by treating the dense interior chaparral vegetation.
Garcia explained that prescribed fires are conducted under “monitored and specific weather conditions in ecosystems that are considered fire adapted,” and the burning of dense vegetation separates burnt and unburnt areas, with the ash providing nutrients to the surroundings.
This video interview featuring the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (embedded below) discusses how a helitorch helped fight the Creek Fire in 2020:
This claim has also been fact-checked by the Associated Press.
Another video of a supposed flamethrower mounted on a drone has widely circulated in the past to make a similar false claim on climate change but fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and LeadStories debunked it.
Misleading: Video showing soldiers burning trees has nothing to do with wildfire
On July 26, a Twitter user claimed wildfires were manmade, calling people to “wake up” with an emoji indicating climate change is a “joke,” just like the first tweet we investigated above.
A video included in the tweet shows people in what looks like a military uniform setting fires to trees with a flamethrower. It has 262 retweets and 376 likes as of this writing. A similar claim can be found in another tweet as well.
However, this video is taken out of context. It is at least eight years old and has nothing to do with recent wildfires.
The operation seen in the clip was part of a military tactic, according to the uploader of the original video.
Annie Lab found several versions of the video and learned that it could have been shot in Iraq. A version posted on Instagram in 2021 shows a name badge clearly visible on the sleeve of the soldier’s uniform that reads “Dewitt,” which was placed below the U.S. flag.
Using the name and the word “Iraq” for search, we found the original video on YouTube titled “Me using flame thrower,” uploaded on April 6, 2014.
The uploader Scott Dewitt said in the video description that the video was taken in Iraq.
It is not clear when the video was recorded but in another video posted in February 2009, Dewitt says he is a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed in Iraq between 2008 and 2009.
In the comments section, he wrote that the purpose of burning palm trees was to better search for concealed IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
A flamethrower is an assault weapon that can spew oil or thickened gasoline, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The U.S. Army stopped using flamethrowers as a combat weapon in 1978, but reportedly it is still employed for controlled burning and anti-terrorist operations.
The U.S. deployed troops in Iraq in 2003 and withdrew them in 2011 after the ouster of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. They went back in 2014 to be part of an international coalition against the Islamic State.
Wildfires and climate change
According to the World Wildlife Fund, most wildfires in recent years are caused by human activities, but prescribed burns are not one of them. In fact, they are often employed to prevent uncontrollable forest fires.
Reportedly, about nine out of 10 fires in Europe are caused by human activities, like arson, disposable barbeques and electricity lines, but the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says climate change increases the risk for wildfire as warmer and drier conditions can spread the fire faster.
Climate Action says climate change is primarily caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions from human activities such as increased fossil fuel consumption, deforestation and livestock farming.