BRASILIA – Fires set by farmers using slash-and-burn tactics to clear their land have reached “alarming” levels in west central Brazil, casting a thick pall of smoke over the region, officials said. Satellite data show a sharp increase in the number of hot spots – areas where there is a high probability that fires are burning – in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul in the last five days of August.
“The dimensions we are dealing with at this stage are quite alarming,” said Lt. Djalma Marques of the fire brigade in Mato Grosso do Sul, on Brazil’s border with Bolivia and Paraguay.
Some 600 firefighters were combating the flames, but reinforcements were needed, he said. Cash-strapped local officials said they were overwhelmed by the emergency.
A thick haze is choking the state capital, Campo Grande, sending scores of children to hospitals with respiratory infections, a spokesman for the civil defence department said.
“All we can see of the sun is a halo, there is that much (smoke) blocking it,” said spokesman Yuri Pedreira.
Brazil’s central region is home to a rapidly expanding agricultural frontier, where farmers planting crops including cotton and sugar cane traditionally set fires between July and October to clear their land in preparation for planting.
High rates of poverty and illiteracy mean that a government campaign highlighting the dangers of setting unsupervised fires during the dry season has been largely ignored.
Satellite data from the government’s Environment Agency (Ibama) registered 2,663 hot spots in Mato Grosso do Sul in the whole of August, up from 1,769 in the Aug. 1-26 period, showing a sharp jump in the last few days of the month.
That represents a tenfold increase from August 1998, when 220 hot spots were detected.
In neighbouring Mato Grosso, the number of hot spots rose to 13,268 by the end of August, compared with 9,101 between Aug. 1 and Aug. 26. Although this represented a decrease from the 14,622 hot spots registered in August 1998, local officials said a greater area had been burned.
While the problem is concentrated in central states, the smoke is blanketing areas as far away as the Peruvian border.
The Amazon state of Acre, on Brazil’s westernmost tip, has threatened to sue its neighbours for damages after a thick cloud of smoke from the fires blew in its direction, attracted by the humidity of the rain forest.
Government officials are struggling to pin down those responsible, with limited funds and only six helicopters to monitor the major deforestation zone in central Brazil, an area more than twice the size of France.
The Mato Grosso do Sul state government estimates that 370,650 acres (150,000 hectares) of land have been destroyed so far this year, forcing highways to close periodically and sending hundreds of animals fleeing for safety.
“The number of hot spots has completely run out of control,” said Jadilza Andrade Araujo, spokeswoman for the state’s Environment Secretariat. “Our (agency) is very small. It’s not up to the task.”
A plane on loan from the United States, equipped with NASA thermal sensors and digital cameras, arrived in the state on Wednesday to give authorities a clearer idea of the true extent of the damage.
The aircraft, the only one of its kind in the world, is able to provide exact data on areas devastated by fires and illegal logging even when visibility is reduced by smoke.