BRASIL – BRASILIA (Reuters) – The number of fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose 20% in June to a 13-year-high for the month, government data showed on Wednesday, as researchers worry that it could signal a repeat of last year’s surge in forest fires.
Health experts also fear the smoke that often blankets the region during the dry season, causing respiratory problems, could cause complications for COVID-19 patients.
In June, Brazil’s government space research agency, INPE, detected 2,248 fires in the Amazon rainforest, up from 1,880 in June 2019.
Still, the burning pales when compared with the surge in fires seen last August, which sparked global outcry that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the world’s largest rainforest.
June 2020 averaged roughly 75 fires per day in the Amazon, compared with an average of nearly 1,000 blazes a day when fires peaked in August 2019.
“It’s a bad sign, but what really is going to count is what happens from now on,” said Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research.
A more worrying indicator is rising deforestation, he said, because fires are usually set to clear the land after trees have been cut down.
Deforestation is up 34% in the first five months of the year, from a year ago, preliminary INPE data shows.
Fearnside said weaker environmental enforcement under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is to blame for rising destruction. Bolsonaro has called for more farming and mining in protected areas of the Amazon, while defending the country for still preserving the majority of the rainforest.
Bolsonaro deployed the armed forces to protect the Amazon in May, as he did in August last year. Despite that initiative, deforestation rose 12% in May from a year earlier and increased in June.
The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a Brazilian non-governmental organization, predicts that at the current pace of deforestation, there will be around 9,000 square kilometers (3,475 square miles) of Amazon by the end of July that have been cut down but not burned since the beginning of 2019, when Bolsonaro assumed office.
The areas at risk of being set ablaze compare with 5,539 square kilometers deforested and burned from January 2019 to April 2020, IPAM said in its analysis earlier this month.
Meanwhile, communities in the Amazon are bracing for the smoke that sweeps over the region during the fire season, which is generally at its height from August to November.
Guilherme Pivoto, an infectologist in Amazonas state, said worsening air quality from the fires could exacerbate harm to those suffering from COVID-19, he said.
“Those that contract COVID have a higher chance of an interaction between the pollution and COVID-19, causing drawn-out cases with more symptoms,” Pivoto said.
Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Steve Orlofsky