- There have been 267 major fires detected in the Amazon this year, burning more than 105,000 hectares (260,000 acres) — an area roughly the size of Los Angeles, California.
- More than 75% of these fires blazed in the Brazilian Amazon, in areas where trees have been cut to make way for agriculture, despite a June 27 ban on unauthorized outdoor fires by the Brazilian government.
- The first forest fires of the season have also been detected, those that have escaped pastures and burned standing Amazon rainforest, where fires are not historically naturally occurring.
- A historic drought, rampant deforestation, and lax environmental regulations mean this year is likely to be a bad year for fires, experts say.
The Amazon fire season is gaining momentum, and this year could be worse than last. As of today, 267 major fires have been detected in the Amazon this year, burning more than 105,000 hectares (260,000 acres) — an area roughly the size of Los Angeles, California.
More than 75% of these fires blazed in the Brazilian Amazon, followed by Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, according to a report by the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).
MAAP detects major fires using heat alerts from the ground as well as aerosol emission data (able to detect smoke). Fires are verified using Planet satellite imagery and reported using their real-time Amazon fire monitoring app.
As of August 2nd, there have been 203 major fires in Brazil this year compared to 98 by the same date last year, well ahead of the typical fire season peak in late August.
In the Bolivian Amazon, 35 major fires have been detected, burning 19,000 hectares (48,000 acres) of natural savanna ecosystems in the department of Santa Cruz alone. In Peru, primarily higher elevation grasslands have been affected.
Unlike in the U.S. West, fires don’t occur naturally in the Amazon rainforest but are set deliberately to clear felled trees and plants to make way for agriculture or renew existing pasture. Most of the fires in Brazil this year (67%) have burned in already deforested areas. Fires have also razed natural savanna grasslands, burning within and around Indigenous territories such as Xingu and Kayapó.
“The critical pattern in the Brazilian Amazon continues to be that most of the major fires … are actually burning the remains of freshly cut areas,” Matt Finer, senior research specialist and director of MAAP, told Mongabay, “like a big smoking indicator of the current high deforestation problem in Brazil.”
A series of satellite images from Planet shows the second major fire of 2021 detected by MAAP, a 216 hectare ( 534 acre) plot of land cleared in 2020 and then set ablaze on May 20, 2021.
MAAP has also detected the first forest fires of the season, those that have escaped pastures and burned standing Amazon rainforest. Last year, an unprecedented number of major fires (41%) burned in standing rainforest, where fires were not historically naturally occurring, covering an area roughly the size of the country of Wales in the United Kingdom.
A historic drought, rampant deforestation, and lax environmental regulations mean this year is likely to be a bad year for fires, experts say. Forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon rose by 2% in June of this year versus June 2020 and has been on the rise for three consecutive months, although it is pacing 11% behind last year’s rate when deforestation reached a 12-year high.
“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.
On June 27, the Brazilian government banned unauthorized outdoor fires for 120 days, meaning the 160 fires detected since are likely illegal, MAAP says. This policy is a repeat of similar fire bans from 2019 and 2020, which failed to lower rates of fires.
“Lots of big fires over weekend in [the] Brazilian Amazon,” Finer tweeted on Aug. 2. “Doesn’t seem like [the] government’s June 27 fire ban [is] doing much good.”
Continued lack of funding for environmental law enforcement in Brazil is also to blame for the continued slash and burn. For instance, the number of fines issued by the Brazilian government for illegal deforestation and burning decreased by nearly half between 2012 and 2020. These gutted regulations and enforcement have emboldened land grabbers and farmers to cut and burn the forest.
Fires in the world’s largest rainforest have consequences for climate. According to a recent study published in Nature, the Brazilian Amazon is now considered a carbon source, emitting more carbon than it captures. Heat, drought, and resulting tree deaths have disrupted the balance of growth and decay in the forest, but it is fires that have tipped the scales.
“If you’re thinking a tipping point [for] the Amazon [is when] it becomes a carbon source, this region is at a tipping point,” Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), told Mongabay. “My question is, if we stop now with fires and deforestation and start the very important repair process for forests, could we reverse the picture? I don’t know.”
Finer, M., Costa, H., Villa, L. (2021). Amazon Fire Tracker 2021: August Update. MAAP 2021, #3.
Gatti, L. V., Basso, L. S., Miller, J. B., Gloor, M., Gatti Domingues, L., Cassol, H. L., … Neves, R. A. (2021). Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature, 595(7867), 388-393. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03629-6
Banner image of area next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Labrea, Amazonas state. Taken 17 Aug, 2020. Image by Christian Braga / Greenpeace.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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