Baseless conspiracy theories blaming celebrity “elites” including Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates for the Hawaii fires have been branded “irresponsible and disgusting”.
At least 96 people have already been confirmed dead after the deadliest US wildfire in a century tore through the island of Maui, and the state’s governor on Monday warned recovery crews are likely to find between 10 and 20 more victims a day.
The historic coastal town of Lahaina, home to around 12,000 residents, was nearly wiped out by the fast-moving inferno last week, with more than 2200 buildings damaged or destroyed, wreaking $US5.5 billion in damage.
Even as rescuers continued to search for victims, conspiracy theories suggesting the fires were not a natural disaster flooded social media platforms.
Twitter user Matt Wallace, who has 1.2 million followers on the social media platform now officially known as X, claimed on Sunday that “locals in Maui were refusing to sell their land to the elites”.
“The part of the island mainly destroyed by the fires was prime area right next to lavish mega-mansions,” he wrote in the post which has been viewed nearly 12 million times. “Now, a lot of those locals are forced to sell their land and many tragically died in the flames.”
He claimed “Oprah Winfrey has a luxury mansion in Maui — it’s completely fine”, repeating the statement for Jeff Bezos, Lady Gaga, Bill Gates, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith and Julia Roberts.
“How did the fire know to avoid the most expensive mansions?” he wrote. “Wake up!”
In another post, the conspiracy theorist claimed Winfrey, 69, had been “buying up land in Maui like crazy”.
“In the last few years she has gone from about 100 acres of land in Maui to over 1000 acres!” he wrote. “Then all of a sudden out of nowhere a fire comes and destroys many homes near her but her land remains untouched!”
The posts came as the media mogul — who is one of Maui’s biggest private landowners — was spotted handing out supplies and speaking with residents at the War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku, which has been converted into a shelter and resource centre, website Hawaii News Now reported.
Footage of Winfrey, clad in a straw hat and clutching pillows, was posted to the Instagram page of Hawaiian rights group Kāko’o Haleakalā.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Winfrey told the BBC in a brief video from the centre.
“But I’m really so pleased to have so many people supporting and people are just bringing what they can and doing what they can.”
She said she had made two trips to the shelter, the first to find out what was actually needed. “Often you make donations of clothes or whatever and its not what people need,” she said.
After that trip she said she went shopping to major US chain stores Walmart and Costco and bought pillows, sheets, shampoo and nappies.
Winfrey has lived on the island part-time for at least 15 years.
In addition to her 1200-acre (486 hectare) holdings across Hana and near Mount Haleakala — relatively far from the deadly fires — Winfrey also recently shelled out $US6.6 million ($10.2 million) on 870 acres (352 hectares) in Kula, which is caught between the south Maui and up-country blazes.
Writing on Twitter, social media influencer Ed Krassenstein told users to stop pushing the “conspiracy theory that Oprah Winfrey is somehow responsible for the Maui, Hawaii wildfires because her estate didn’t burn down”.
“Oprah has literally been on the ground helping people,” he wrote.
“She has been providing cots, pillows, toiletries, and more to shelters, like this one in Wailuku, Hawaii, where she can also be seen helping out. I get it. People don’t like Oprah’s politics. But to make up a conspiracy theory without a shred of evidence is both irresponsible and disgusting. You’re better than this.”
Other false claims to gain traction online — using videos and images from different events — include that the fires were deliberately started by a “directed energy weapon” or “laser beam”.
Some social media users have claimed photos from Maui showing trees and poles still standing alongside destroyed cars and buildings prove a wildfire wasn’t the cause.
Experts have debunked those claims.
“It’s actually very common that wildfires will burn out structures and vehicles but leave surrounding trees, utility poles, and other vegetation unscathed,” Michael Gollner, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who leads a fire research lab, told the Associated Press.
Writing on Twitter, NBC News reporter Ben Collins said the Maui fires were “a good example of how conspiracy culture cannot and should not be reasoned with”.
“There will be no come-to-Jesus moment on climate change or severe weather,” he said. “There will just be more people claiming Oprah or Biden used a direct energy weapon. That’s our future.”
On Monday, Hawaii Governor Josh Green said emergency responders with cadaver dogs would need more than a week to work their way through hundreds of homes and burnt-out vehicles.
“There are more fatalities that will come,” he told CBS. “They will find 10 to 20 people per day probably until they finish. And it’s probably going to take 10 days. It’s impossible to guess, really.”
Mr Green said with mobile phone communications now restored, residents had been able to connect with family and friends, and the number of people still missing had been reduced from more than 2000 to around 1300.
“Our hearts will break beyond repair, perhaps, if that means that many more dead,” he said. “None of us think that, but we are prepared for many tragic stories.”
— with AFP and NY Post