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Government Commits To Prescribed Burns And More Firefighters


The situation with wildland fires in Brazil remains complex despite recently announced tightening of firefighting measures.

WWF experts brief members of Brazil’s fire brigade. Photos by Pi Suruí / WWF-Brasil.

In accordance with an order issued by Marina Silva, Brazil’s minister of the environment and climate change, an environmental emergency was declared March 14 in several regions, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, due to a high risk of wildland fires, and was expected to last until the end of the year.

The red alert for the risk of forest fires came days after the Brazil National Institute for Space Research reported record deforestation of Brazil in the month of February. According to data from the institute, there were 290.75 square kilometers of land and forest deforested in Brazil because of fires in 2022, compared to 198.67 square kilometers recorded as the highest previous figure in 2021.

According to a survey conducted by Monitor do Fogo, a part of MapBiomas platform that measures forest fires in Brazil in partnership with the local Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) – a scientific, non-governmental organization that oversees sustainable development of the Amazon – the area of forest and wildland fires in Brazil grew by almost 80 per cent in 2022 compared with 2021.

Last year the total area under wildland fires in Brazil amounted to 2.7 million hectares and the 2023 figure may be even higher. Traditionally the most complex situation is observed in the Amazon rainforests, where in 2022 the area under fires grew by 111 per cent, with two million hectares of forests and wildland destroyed; this has a negative impact on the country’s ecosystem.

“Even a single fire has huge impacts on the vegetation structure, as degraded forests store 25 per cent less carbon for at least 30 years”, explained IPAM science director and MapBiomas Fire co-ordinator Ane Alencar in an interview with Brazil Metropoles business paper, Conservation specialist Osvaldo Barassi Gajardo with WWF-Brazil said that despite increased rainfall in the first three months of 2023, “Brazil remains still the second country in South America behind Venezuela, with a significant increase in forest and wildland fires in recent months.”

According to the Brazil National Space Research Institute, this year the number of wildfires in Brazil nearly quadrupled between January and February to 3,602 from 937 outbreaks in 2022. The most complex situation was observed in Mato Grosso State, located in the Midwest region (Cerrado and Amazon Biomes).

“States in the Amazon region such as Pará and Rondônia are on the top list of fire increases,” said Gajardo. “It is important to highlight that the state of Pará is directly linked to deforestation. Due to the political context of 2022, forest fires in Brazil grew by 14 per cent compared to previous years. According to Mapbiomas Fire, Brazil has lost 163,000 km2 of forests to fire. Most of the fires took place in the Amazon and Cerrado Biomes, which is equivalent to 95 per cent of destroyed area. In the case of Amazon there is a direct relationship with deforestation.”

According to Gajardo, the beginning of rainfall season resulted in stabilization of the wildland fire situation in some areas, such as Pantanal, (which was highly affected by forest fires during 2020 when almost 30 per cent of the biome surface was impacted by fire), however the current situation is still complex.

Most analysts were expecting 2023 to be a tough year for Brazil, as the risk of new wildland and forest fires remained high, mainly due to El Nino and a high risk of further droughts in regions such as the Amazon.

The Brazil government is taking measures to prevent (and better respond to) massive wildland fires, including various prevention actions and the more active hiring of training of brigades.

Portions of the Amazon rain forest that were burned by wildfire in 2022. Photos by Pi Suruí / WWF-Brasil.

According to Gajardo, the hiring of wildland firefighters was seriously delayed by the previous government and “only became effective in June when the fires start to enter the most critical phase, with high peaks of fires between August and September.” Gajardo said it’s critical to more actively fight fires to prevent further deforestation.

“This fire risk measure comes after the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) pointed out a deforestation record for February since the beginning of the historical series, in 2016. There were 290.75 km2. Gajardo said the deforestation issue takes on importance, particularly in the Amazon, because there is a direct relationship betwen deforestation and forest fires; often deforestation is meant to increase area for livestock.

“We emphasize that a hectare of clean land is worth much more than a hectare of forested land, promoting this perverse system of deforestation and burning.”

Most analysts hope that recently re-elected President Lulu da Silva will take decisive action to prevent a repetition of last year’s wildfire situation Brazil, which was attributed to the poor prevention measures by the previous government.

During Jair Bolsonaro’s four years as president, the environmental and firefighting policies, were criticized due to low efficiency and insufficient funding. In addition, there was serious criticism of the previous government for dismantling of environmental protection policies and weakening of environmental bodies, as well as attributing of wildland fires to people of mixed Indigenous Brazilian and European ancestry.

In general, according to analysts, the destruction of forests by wildland fires in the Amazon reached an alarming new level during Bolsonaro’s reign.

The new government will start more active controlled and prescribed burning. Some regions of the Cerrado, a vast ecoregion of tropical savanna in eastern Brazil (the most biodiverse savannah in the world, which is known for Brazilian highlands) – and the Planalto have been using prescribed burning since December 2022 to reduce fuel accumulation.

According to some Brazil media reports, many states are planning a calendar of controlled burnings as well as tightened security measures given that some of Brazil’s large fires in recent years – the Amazon in 2019, and the Pantanal, the largest flooded inland plain in the world, in 2020 – were mainly the result of intentional fire setting. The ministry last year presented a plan to combat wildland fires and forest fires in the country by hiring of more than 6,000 special security agents in major states and provinces, with particular focus on the Amazon, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest Caatinga regions and most importantly Pantanal. According to Greenpeace Brazil, this is of particular importance, given the status of Pantanal as a biodiversity hotspot with the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent. A significant population of jaguars lives there, and the biome also hosts one of the largest hyacinth macaw sanctuaries.

Brazil’s justice ministry has said it will co-ordinate the work of these security agencies, while all the costs associated with their work will be covered by the federal government. These security agents will monitor and carry out effective actions in places where there are major fire outbreaks, in addition to investigating crimes.

It is important to recognize that up to 90 per cent of forest and wildland fires in Brazil have a criminal origin, and that many illegal fires are set for clearing pastures and building roads. Some of these fires are the result of expansion of agribusiness with the increase in planting of grain and other agricultural crops.

Particular focus will be paid to the state of Amazonas, which has the largest extension of continuous dense tropical forests on the planet with the South

The Amazon rainforest is a humid environment, and natural fire happens very rarely in its territory, only every 500 years. Even in the dry season, when there are more favorable environmental conditions and fuel material, the high humidity would not allow for hot spots if there were no human action. In this regard, the beginning of more active patrolling forests by security services will contribute to the reduction of risks of intentional burning.

According to the business newspaper Brazil de Fato, in September 2022 a large fire hit the Brasília National Park, the largest park in an urbanized area in the world. According to the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation the fire destroyed more than 3,500 hectares of forests and lands sparked serious concerns from environmentalists and the country’s authorities.

Vera Arruda, a senior expert of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, said in an interview that wildland fires in Brazil have different origins and have a negative impact on the entire ecosystem of the country.

“They have been used directly or indirectly associated with deforestation and land grabbing processes, seeking to consolidate the expansion of the agricultural frontier,” she said. “Forest fires here in Brazil are not only an environmental problem, but also a social, cultural, political and economic one.”

Regular drought periods also increase risk of forest fires in Brazil, most commonly in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast regions.

According to a study conducted by the Brazil ministry of environment, three out of every four hectares destroyed by fires this year in Brazil corresponds to native vegetation, mainly natural grasslands, and one out of five to forests.

At the same time, according to state experts, about 90 per cent of forest fires in the country could be prevented by adequate actions of the state.

Eugene Gerden is an international freelance writer who specializes in covering the global fire fighting and rescue industry. Gerden has worked for several industry titles and can be reached at [email protected].