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Helicopter setting fire to trees is preventing, not causing, wildfires

July 29, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: A video of a helicopter setting treetops ablaze is proof that wildfires being attributed to climate change are actually set intentionally.

AP ASSESSMENT: False. The helicopter in the video is conducting a planned burn in Arizona in 2017 as part of wildfire prevention efforts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and a forestry expert.

THE FACTS: The U.S. is now in wildfire season, as parts of rural Texas erupt and the Oak Fire rages in California amid prolonged warm and dry conditions. But climate-related misinformation has ignited just as quickly in recent weeks, including a video of a pre-planned, intentional fire that’s been taken out of context.

The video shows a yellow and red helicopter flying above a burning forest, with a blowtorch-like device suspended beneath it. The torch emits a blast of flames and lights another group of trees ablaze.

“The reason behind forest fire. Climate change,” reads the caption of one version of the video, ending with a clown emoji. The clip was posted to Twitter and retweeted nearly 4,000 times.

In reality, it shows a 2017 prescribed fire being set by a helicopter contracted to work in the Hualapai Mountains near Kingman, Arizona, said Dolores Garcia, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management’s office in Arizona. The helicopter is using an aerial tool called a helitorch to clear away excess brush in areas naturally prone to wildfire.

“We’re reducing the vegetation in the cooler, wetter winter and fall months so that it’s not available to burn with high intensity when the spring and summers come — when those large wildfires tend to happen,” she said.

Helitorches are used to set fire to a large area very quickly, Garcia said, whereas firefighters on the ground can create a “more precise boundary” for a planned fire.

John Rizza, a regional fire specialist with Oregon State University’s forestry and fire program, agreed the video showed a prescribed burn.

“Notice how the chopper is moving in a slow methodical way to put down strips of fire in a controlled way,” he told the AP in an email. “They are likely conducting a firing operation that will allow each strip of fire to back down the slope into the one below it.”

A similar clip showing the same fire and an identical helicopter using a helitorch appears on the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona’s Facebook page, dated March 21, 2017.

Areas prone to wildfires can actually benefit from low-level burns, Garcia said. While they can spiral out of control, as was the case in a conflagration in New Mexico this spring, they can also protect forests from catastrophic damage. Preventative fires have been credited with sparing Yosemite National Park’s famed giant sequoia trees from a recent blaze, as the AP reported.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.