The Heat Is Online

Military Called In to Fight Amazon Fires

Brazilian army fights Amazon blaze, March 18, 2003

The army in Brazil has been sent in to fight forest fires which are spreading out of control in an area of the northern Amazon rainforest.

The fires are being fuelled by exceptionally dry weather and high winds being blamed on the El Nino climate effect.

In the last four days, satellites have detected 686 fires in the northern state of Roraima, most of them started by farmers who burn the land in preparation for planting when the rains start. But high winds and exceptionally dry conditions have allowed the fires to spread out of control.

Already, the edge of the forest reserve of the Yanomami Indians, one of the Amazon's largest hunter gatherer tribes, is burning.

El Nino conditions

Firefighters have been dropping water from helicopters and nearly 900 firemen are now being deployed, with the army co-ordinating their efforts.

The dry conditions have been blamed on El Nino, a warm current in the Pacific Ocean which periodically causes climate changes across the region.

But scientists are also worried that excessive destruction is drying out the world's largest rainforest, making it more vulnerable to fires.

The last big fire in the northern area of the Amazon was in 1998, and was only put out by rain. Weather forecasters are not predicting rain for at least another week.

Military to fight fires in Amazon

The Boston Globe, March 18, 2003

BRASILIA -- In a sign of growing concern over spreading forest fires in Brazil's northern Amazon jungle, the army has taken command of fighting the fires, environmental authorities said yesterday.

As the fires entered the reserve of the Yanomami Indians, one of the world's last hunter-gatherer tribes, the army was put in charge due to ''its greater operational capabilities,'' said Marcos

Barros, head of the government's Ibama environmental agency.

Fires are common this time of year in the Amazon state of Roraima as poor farmers burn their land before sowing. But with extremely dry weather and hot winds blowing across the region's jungle and savanna, the fires have gotten out of control this year.

In the last four days, satellites have detected nearly 686 hot spots across Roraima, most of which are believed to be fires, in an area the size of Britain. There were just over 300 hot spots as of Friday. The biggest city in the area, Roraima's provincial capital Boa Vista, had haze from the fires hanging over it yesterday.

The army's involvement in such operations has been rare in Brazil since the end of two decades of military rule in 1985.

The decision to send more firefighters came as strong winds pushed the fires deeper into the forest reserve of the Yanomami Indians, which the fires reached at the end of last week.

The Yanomami, one of the world's only true Neolithic tribes, had lived in near-total isolation for about 2,000 years until the late 1970s, when Brazil's military government conducted surveys in the area. An estimated 26,000 still live in the jungles.

''We have created a single command with the Brazilian army in Roraima heading it,'' Barros told Reuters from the Amazon state.

Barros said up to 200 specialist firefighters would be streaming into Roraima in coming days, bringing the total number of personnel to about 850, up from 500 this time last week. He said the government would free up at least 2 million reais ($600,000) to finance the fight.

Barros flew over the area yesterday together with Environment Minister Marina Silva to evaluate the damage.

The fires in the northern Amazon, where the tropical forest is larger than western Europe, sparked such a tough response by the government due to concerns that it could repeat a 1998 blaze that caused massive environmental damage. The Amazon is home to up to 30 percent of the world's animal and plant life.

Authorities hope the first downpours of the rainy season will come in the next two weeks but if they don't some observers warn the situation could become worse than in 1998.