The number of forest fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest increased 28% in July in comparison to last year, the country’s National Institute for Space Research reported Saturday.
Brazil holds around 60% of the Amazon basin region and environmentalists say this area is vital to containing the impact of climate change.
The state agency recorded 6,803 fires in the Amazon last month, compared to 5,318 in the same month of 2019.
Environmentalists were alarmed by the figure, particularly because August traditionally marks the beginning of the fire season in the region. Many now fear that a repeat of the large surge in fires that devastated the area last August could occur this year again.
The fires have been largely set to clear land illegally for farming, ranching and mining. Activists accuse Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of encouraging the deforestation, as he has been in favor of opening up the rainforest to agriculture and industry.
The first six months of 2020 were already the worst on record for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, with 3,069 square kilometers (1,185 square miles) cleared, according to INPE data, an area larger than the nation of Luxembourg.
Read more: WWF: Rainforest deforestation more than doubled under cover of coronavirus
On July 16, the Brazilian government banned burning in the Pantanal wetlands and the Amazon forest for four months.
President Bolsonaro also issued an order in May for the military to coordinate environmental actions in the Amazon.
But experts say the fire numbers indicate the government’s response has not been effective. The deforestation index also remained high this year until July, compared to the last couple of years, according to Carlos Nobre, a researcher at the Advanced Studies Institute in the State University of Sao Paulo.
”We can conclude, with data until the end of July, that the effectiveness of government actions to reduce fires and deforestation is low,” he said.
Experts also say that this year’s dry season will be even more prone to fires than last year. US space agency NASA warned last month that warmer ocean surface temperatures in the North Atlantic have creating the conditions for a more extreme drought in the Amazon.
“Human-set fires used for agriculture and land clearing more prone to growing out of control and spreading,” NASA warned. “Conditions are ripe.”
jcg/aw (AFP, AP)
With its combination of scrub and grasses, strong winds and dry climate, the Cerrado in central Brazil is extremely prone to wildfires. Located between the Amazon rain forest, Atlantic forest and the region of Pantanal, the Cerrado, which is South America’s largest savanna region, has witnessed an 800% rise in fires this year alone.
The Cerrado is one of Brazil’s biggest biomes, boasting over 10,000 species of plants, almost half of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is also home to animals like jaguars, wolves, giant armadillos, and hundreds of bird species, which shelter in the gnarly trees characteristic of the landscape. Once a wildfire spreads, these animals either burn to death or lose their habitat.
The state of Mato Grosso, where much of the Cerrado is located, is Brazil’s largest cotton and soy producer. Its vast farms are located on former forest lands which were cleared for agricultural purposes. Many farmers use fires to create space for their cattle. Flames can easily get out of control and spread to natural reserves and neighboring farms.
When a fire gets out of control, the first people called to the scene are local firefighters working in the countryside. If a blaze is too much for them to handle, elite teams are called in. Trained in forest and mountain navigation as well as forest survival, these special firefighters support and manage local efforts and tailor plans aimed to bring the flames under control.
If a forest fire rages out of control, the elite firefighters might choose to start an intentional counter blaze to starve it of fuel. After burning a controlled area several meters wide, the teams are able to take control of the original fire. They also use water (pictured) to improve soil protection.
“We burn a 50 meter area to save kilometers of forest,” says elite firefighter Isaac Wihby (pictured). “Of course, we would prefer not to burn a centimeter but sometimes we need to adapt to the situation.”
The elite teams are composed of squads of four people. Working in the Cerrado is not an easy task. Even without fires, temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The teams work on ten-day deployments looking for fires. They stay at local houses and sleep in hammocks. Operations can continue until midnight, but nonetheless, the new working day begins at 4.30.
Without proper training or equipment, locals use whatever they can find to battle the flames until the firefighters arrive. When a fire broke out in a cornfield (pictured) recently, farmers had no water tanks, so tried using branches and sticks to beat back the flames. They were not successful, and the entire field caught alight within a matter of minutes.
The elite firefighters also train local farmers on how to best respond to fires when they break out. Once trained and instructed, the locals set counter fires as a way of learning how to tackle uncontrolled flames in the future (pictured).