Sweat, smoke and flames: fighting fires in the Amazon

A Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) fire brigade member holds a dead anteater while attempting to control hot points in a tract of the Amazon jungle near Apui, Amazonas State, Brazil

For a moment, the Brazilian firefighters were taken aback by the sudden rage of the climbing flames: the speed at which they grew and moved, carried by the evening wind.

Under the supervision of fire fighters from Brazil’s environment agency Ibama, a farmer in this remote part of the Amazon had set alight undergrowth along part of his land, a last-ditch attempt to divert a major fire approaching his home by starving fuel from the encroaching flames.

But fire is unpredictable, especially here in the Amazon where different vegetation burns at different rates during the long dry months of the annual “fire season.”

Wind and heat can quickly change the pattern of a blaze. Even rainfall from months ago can make a difference.

Ten firefighters, dressed in yellow flame-retardant jackets with white balaclavas covering their mouths to protect from the smoke, worked to control the larger blaze by pushing the new flames with a water cannon towards it.

There is little else to be done.

The fire, filling up the horizon, is too big to put out with the little equipment and the small team that Ibama has in Apuí, a sawmill town of around 20,000 people on a rough dirt patch of the Trans-Amazonian highway in the eastern corner of Brazil’s giant Amazonas state.

Our journalists accompanied the firefighters, sweating from the flames and wearing gas masks against the smoke, as the heat rose through their boots.

Journalists had traveled for five days along dusty, potholed tracks and over precarious bridges of felled trees to report on some of the thousands of fires burning in the Amazon.

On Tuesday, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro denied there were any fires in the Amazon, calling it a “lie” and blaming the media for spreading it.

According to government data, the first 12 days of August have seen about the same number of fires as this time last year, when a sharp increase in blazes across the Amazon attracted international condemnation amid alarm over the deforestation of a region crucial to the fight against global warming.

Experts say that fires are rarely a natural phenomenon in the rainforest, resulting instead from deliberate burning by farmers and land speculators to clear deforested land for pasture.

Deforestation rose 34.5% in the 12 months through July, compared to a year earlier.

Bolsonaro has dispatched the military to fight fires and deforestation since May, but environmental experts question whether these deployments are working.

As night falls over Apuí, the fire crackles. A giant tree, tumbles in flames with a fiery crash. The worst is over, the fire largely controlled and the firefighters, reeking of smoke fumes, get into their trucks and drive on to the next one.

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