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As Amazon blazes surge, firefighting proves a challenge

by Lucas Landau | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 November 2020 13:31 GMT

A view of a charred log after a fire near the Brazilian Amazon town of Novo Progresso, August 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lucas Landau

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In Brazil's Amazon, capacity is lacking to battle growing numbers of runaway wildfires

By Lucas Landau

NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil, Nov 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In August, teacher Núbia Machado visited environment agency Ibama's office in Novo Progresso, in the Amazon state of Para, to seek help with a huge fire that had swept into her nearby farm the night before.

The blaze already had roared through most of her 255 hectares (630 acres) of land, half of it a forest reserve as required by law.

Photos and videos recorded on her mobile phone suggested the fire had come from her neighbors' land.

But environmental agency staff told Machado nothing could be done because the fire was on private land.

A local representative of PrevFogo, a federal system to prevent and fight forest fires, which Ibama coordinates, told her the agency's jurisdiction extended only to conservation and indigenous reserves and a few other situations, Machado said.

The representative suggested she and other farm owners get a group of friends together and try to put out the fire themselves.

"How am I supposed to control a fire in the middle of the jungle?", an irritated Machado asked the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noting she didn't have the manpower or equipment needed to do the job.

"I left the Ibama office with my land on fire, with damage to the electricity supply and part of the fruit orchard, the forest reserve burning, and no results," she said.

As a result, she had "nothing to do but wait and hope that they understand that the fire didn't start in our farm", she said.

Ibama's press office did not respond to repeated calls and emails for comment on Machado's case.

Smoke rises from a fire near the Brazilian Amazon town of Novo Progresso, August 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lucas Landau


As Brazil's second-worst fire season in a decade flares across the Amazon this year, putting out blazes has proved a challenge.

The Amazon city of Novo Progresso, for instance - where Machado lives - has no firefighting capacity. The nearest fire department is in Itaituba, more than 400 km (250 miles) away.

That means that when blazes escape control, there can be little prospect of getting them put out before they turn into major threats.

On the night of August 10, as fire spread through Machado's farm, an employee living on the land - the only one there at the time - had to be rushed to the hospital with smoke inhalation, she said.

Before leaving, he managed only to clear the area around the house, to try to protect it, she said.

The fire, which swept through neighboring farms and forest land as well, burned on for two weeks after her visit to the Ibama offices, Machado said.

She wasn't only worried about her farm losses, she said. Under the law, private landowners can be held responsible for damage fires do to forest reserves on private land.

Adécio Piran, the Novo Progresso city environmental secretary, said this year his department had begun investigating more than two dozen cases where it suspected landowners had set fires to clear land, seen the blazes surge out of control, then filed police reports about fire damage to their land, "hoping not to be charged".

The city environmental department recorded more than 2,000 hectares of pasture land - and 250 acres of forest reserves - burned in the Novo Progresso municipal area between June and August this year.

Across the Brazilian Amazon, the number of fires in October was more than twice those recorded last year, according to Brazil's Institute of Space Research (INPE), which carries out satellite monitoring.

Setting fires is an old practice among Amazon farmers, to open more space for cattle ranching, and is also used by indigenous groups to improve farmland or make hunting easier.

"Grileiros" - farm employees who work for landowners - say it takes about two years to cut trees, burn debris and finish clearing forested land for farming or ranching.

Sidnei Mendes, a farmer in the region for more than 20 years, said clearing new land costs only about a fifth as much as fertilizing and improving already cleared land - one reason fires proliferate.

"For a minority, it is more viable to commit a crime than to work properly," he said.

Even though fires are commonly set in the Amazon throughout the dry April to November season, August 10 is known as "Fire Day" in Novo Progresso, to mark widespread burning that day in 2019 after the election of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has urged development of the Amazon.

This year, under international pressure, Brazil's government in mid-July declared a 120-day federal fire moratorium in the Amazon.

But the declaration has had little impact on the ground.

On November 1, INPE announced that the number of fires in Brazil's Amazon forest had risen by 25% in the first 10 months of the year, compared to 2019.

Fires began in July and "until it rains, they won't stop", Piran, the Novo Progresso environmental secretary, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Read more:

Amazon losses help drive growing wildfires elsewhere in Brazil

'It burned everything': Fires surge on Brazil indigenous land

Mapping environmental crime seen as key to slowing Amazon forest losses

(Reporting by Lucas Landau ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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