Number of Brazil Amazon fires hits 5-yr high in August

Smoke rises from forest fires in the region of Novo Progresso in Para, Brazil, on Aug. 21.

MANAUS, Brazil (AP) — More fires burned in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest this August than in any month in nearly five years, thanks to a surge in illegal deforestation.

Satellite sensors detected 33,116 fires according to Brazil’s national space institute. The dry season months of August and September are usually the worst for both deforestation and fire.

It was also the worst August for fire in 12 years. That includes August of 2019, when images of the burning rainforest shocked the world and drew criticism from European leaders. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had recently taken office and was turning environmental enforcement on its head, saying criminals should not be fined and promising development of the Amazon.

The far-right president downplayed the raging fires then and continues to do so today. He told media network Globo on Aug. 22 — the worst single day for outbreaks of fire in 15 years — that the criticism is part of an effort to undermine the nation’s agribusiness sector.

“Brazil does not deserve to be attacked in this way,” said Bolsonaro, who is campaigning for reelection.

The fires are evident even several hundred miles away in the Amazon’s largest city, Manaus, where smoke has hung in the sky for weeks.

Fires in the Amazon are almost always deliberately set, primarily to improve cattle pasture or burn recently felled trees once they are dry. Often the fires burn out of control and spread into pristine areas of the forest.

After a calm period with unusually high rainfall in early August, blazes began spreading rapidly, said Ane Alencar, coordinator of the Mapbiomas Fire project, run by a network of nonprofits, universities and tech startups.

“The deforestation rate is very high. That means there are many fallen trees ready to burn,” Alencar told The Associated Press in a Zoom interview. The fire season will be even more intense in September.”

About 20% of the area burned in the Amazon this year was deforested recently. Some is within protected areas that are targeted by land-grabbers, according to an analysis by the Center of Life Institute, a Brazilian nonprofit, based on NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database.

One example is Cristalino II State Park in Mato Grosso, a protected area recently declared illegal by a state court. The state prosecutors office appealed that decision, but the legal dissolution seemed to give license to deforesters, unleashing a wave of destruction. In just the past few weeks, fire has destroyed nearly 40 square kilometers in the park, despite the presence of firefighters, according to the Center of Life Institute.

Widespread fire means Brazil is failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, as almost half the country’s carbon pollution comes from land conversion. The Amazon rainforest is an important carbon absorber for the planet, but burning timber releases that carbon into the atmosphere.

During the COP26 climate summit earlier this year, the Bolsonaro government promised to stop all illegal deforestation by 2028. So far during his tenure, forest loss has surged to a 15-year high.

“If Brazil wants to reduce its carbon emissions, the number one thing to do is reduce deforestation. And the second is to reduce the use of fire,” Alencar said.