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Fire season intensifies in the Brazilian Amazon, feeding off deforestation

One of the first major fires of the year, detected in the Brazilian Amazon on May 20, also on the southern edge of the Amazon in the state of Mato Grosso. Image courtesy of MAAP.

  • Twenty-four major fires have burned in the Brazilian Amazon so far this year, all of them set on land previously deforested in 2020, until this week when the first major blaze was set on land cleared in 2021.
  • Experts are expecting this to be a bad year for fires, owing to a historic drought, high levels of deforestation, and a lack of funding for environmental law enforcement.
  • President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree on June 23 to send Brazilian soldiers into the Amazon to curb deforestation (which often precedes fires), but one expert calls this a “smokescreen” that would allow deforestation to continue.
  • Deforestation rates have been higher under Bolsonaro than any past president: in 2020, Brazil lost a Central Park-sized area of forest every two hours, and on the day with the highest rate of deforestation, July 31, an estimated 2 million trees were cut down.

So far this year, 24 major fires have burned in the Brazilian Amazon, covering an area of 7,167 hectares (17,710 acres). All of the fires were set on land previously deforested in 2020 until this week, when the first major blaze was set on land cleared in 2021, according to a report by the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

High-resolution satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows the first fire of the season to burn on land deforested this year, marking a shift in the fire season.

Experts are expecting this to be a bad year for fires, owing to a historic drought, high levels of deforestation, and lack of funding for environmental law enforcement.

The first fires of the season occurred on May 19 and 20, about a week earlier than the start of last year’s fire season, according to MAAP’s real-time Amazon fire monitoring app, which uses a combination of aerosol emission data and on-the-ground heat alerts to detect major fires.

“Widespread drought conditions in 2021 are a worrisome sign that extreme fire risk could affect a large part of South America, straining firefighting resources and threatening ecosystems, infrastructure, and public health,” Douglas Morton, a NASA Earth scientist who studies fire, told CNN.

MAAP’s real-time Amazon fire monitoring app shows the location of the 2021 major Amazon fires (orange dots), concentrated in the southeastern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Image courtesy of MAAP.

On June 23, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree to send Brazilian soldiers into the Amazon to curb deforestation in the states of Pará, Amazonas, Rondônia and Mato Grosso (where all of this year’s fires have been set). No details about the level of funding or number of troops have been released. This decree comes two months after troops were removed from the region, and on the heels of the resignation of the environment minister, Ricardo Salles.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Márcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, called this latest decree a “smokescreen,” saying it would allow deforestation to continue. Initiatives effectively curbing deforestation were largely defunded in 2019, when Bolsonaro took office.

Deforestation rates have been higher under Bolsonaro than any past president. In 2020, Brazil lost 158 hectares (390 acres) of forest per hour — an area half the size of New York City’s Central Park — according to a report by MapBiomas. On the day with the highest rate of deforestation, July 31, an estimated 2 million trees were cut down.

In the Amazon and neighboring Cerrado grasslands, more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of forest were cleared in 2020, an area about seven-and-a-half times as big as London. Deforestation this year is on track to outpace last year.

All of this year’s fires burned in previously deforested areas, and most in close proximity to the Amazon primary forest frontier. Satellite imagery by Planet Labs courtesy of MAAP.

In the Amazon, forests are often cut during the wet season (December through April) and burned during the dry season (between May and October) to make way for agribusiness use, particularly cattle pasture.

The fires this year highlight the “very strong link between recent deforestation and fire in the Brazilian Amazon,” Matt Finer, senior research specialist and director of MAAP, told Mongabay.

“In other words, it’s not a wildfire problem every year,” Finer said. “It’s a deforestation followed by fire problem every year.”

Last year saw an unprecedented spike in fires leaving cleared lands and burning in standing Amazon rainforest. MAAP estimates that nearly 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon’s standing rainforest burned in 2020, an area roughly the size of the country of Wales in the U.K.

Looking ahead, Finer says, we can expect to see similar patterns to last year in the Brazilian Amazon, with fires burning in deforested areas early in the season and a possible shift to fires spreading into standing forests as the dry season continues.

Banner image of one of the first major fires of the year, detected in the Brazilian Amazon on May 20, also on the southern edge of the Amazon in the state of Mato Grosso. Image courtesy of MAAP.

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

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