Major fires in Brazil in 2020

Fire data from MAAP’s Amazon Fire Monitoring App is updated in real time and will include data from after August 25, 2020

Cartography by Willie Shubert in collaboration with

2019’s Amazon fires burned primarily in newly cleared land, not in intact forests, and largely followed a pattern of intentional, often illegal, deforestation to make way for cattle and crops. This year, the pattern is similar, with 83% of fires burning in recently deforested areas.

However, as the fire season has progressed, forests are burning. Of the fires detected so far this year, 12% were within intact forests, covering a total area of 70,330 hectares (173,000 acres) — an area almost as large as New York City’s land area. Most of these forest fires occurred over the past week.

The largest forest fire, detected on Aug 17, burned 10,362 hectares (25,605 acres) — about the size of 14,500 soccer fields — near the Xingu River in São Félix do Xingu, a municipality in the Amazon state of Pará in Northern Brazil. The fire was within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of both the Kayapó Indigenous Territory and the Terra do Meio Ecological Station, a strictly regulated nature reserve.

The Terra do Meio Ecological Station is part of the Triunfo do Xingu Protected Area (PA), a large expanse of tens of thousands of acres of biodiverse rainforest that has seen an uptick in illegal fires in recent weeks. Triunfo do Xingu came under federal protection in 2006, with landowners in the region required to keep 80% of the surrounding forest intact to buffer both the Terra do Meio Ecological Station and the 18 Indigenous territories in the area. Regardless of protections on paper, the region has become heavily deforested, losing 30% of its forest cover since 2006, with fire regularly used as a tool to convert rainforest to agricultural lands.

“The problem is that a lack of land oversight led to this area being more and more occupied, more and more threatened,” Francisco Fonseca, who works for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a conservation NGO, said in a late July interview. “And this will now only worsen going forward.”

On-the-ground fire monitoring, control, and the capacity to prosecute those who set illegal fires, is limited this year, as government agencies and law enforcement that once operated in the Amazon have been largely defunded under the current administration. IBAMA, the country’s environmental agency, which annually fought fires, has been largely replaced by the Brazilian Army, which is inexperienced in fire suppression.

On July 15, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro issued a 120 day fire ban, meaning that all subsequent fires (97% of the current total) are classified as illegal. There has been little to no action to enforce this moratorium according to experts.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show deforestation in and around Jamanxim National Forest. Fires have increased in this region in recent weeks.
Satellite data from the University of Maryland show deforestation in and around Jamanxim National Forest. Fires have increased in this region in recent weeks.

Satellite images of cleared land within the Jamanxim Protected Area before and during a fire detected on August 12, 2020. Satellite Image by Planet.

Many fires this year have been detected in Novo Progresso municipality along Highway BR-163 — a notorious deforestation corridor — with blazes encroaching on Jamanxim National Forest to the east. The fires in Jamanxim fall into two categories, said Brazilian social scientist, regular visitor to the region, and Mongabay contributor, Mauricio Torres. One group of fires are set annually to maintain existing pastures, while the other is in recently felled forests.

Some cattle pastures were created before the establishment of Jamanxim National Forest in 2006, and so are legal. But many were created after that within its boundaries, and are illegal. Fires are typically set yearly in Amazon pastures to control pests and weeds and to encourage new growth of cattle fodder. But, all set Jamanxim fires occurring since July 15 are illegal due to Bolsonaro’s 120-day fire ban.

An illegal fire south of Novo Progresso detected on August 14, 2020. The type of fire in the image, on private land, is more typical than those occurring in protected areas.

“And why are they deforesting there and not in other protected areas?” Torres asks. “Because the government has been indicating for many years that it is thinking of reducing the size of this FLONA [national forest]. So, the land-grabbers are rushing there, thinking that they’ll soon be able to legally sell the plots they grab. And they also believe that they’ll be able to force the government’s hand through a fait accompli: if there’s no forest left, why keep it as a protected area?”

These land-grabbers have good reason to hope: under both presidents Michel Temer and Bolsonaro the government has issued amnesties to land speculators who have invaded conservation units, and often then use fire to convert forest on public lands to private agricultural lands.

How MAAP counts fires
MAAP monitors fires in the Amazon in near real-time, using the Real-time Amazon Fire Monitoring app to pinpoint areas with elevated aerosol emissions, caused by large amounts of biomass burning. A “major fire” is defined as one with an aerosol index of  >1 (appearing cyan-green to red on the app). Once an alert is detected, MAAP analyzes high resolution satellite imagery to confirm the fire. MAAP also compares satellite imagery from year to year to determine if the fire broke out following a recent deforestation event. This measure is different than the widely reported “hotspots” from satellites, which already number in the tens of thousands this dry season but which include existing pastures and croplands which are annually burned over.

Banner Image: Between 7-10 July, Greenpeace Brazil flew over the state of Mato Grosso to capture images of fires burning in the Amazon. © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.


Finer M, Vale H, Villa L, Nicolau A (2020) Over 500 Illegal Major Fires in Brazilian Amazon. MAAP.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_

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