BRASILIA, April 7 (Reuters) - Brazil on Tuesday announced plans to prevent and fight fires in the Amazon amid concern that a recent environmental disaster in the northern state of Roraima might recur in this year's dry season.
"There has been a dramatic shortage of rain (in the current wet season), and we have a particularly dangerous situation," Environment Minister Gustavo Krause told a news conference.
He said a huge arc of the Amazon, running thousands of miles from Rondonia state, on the border with Bolivia, to Para state, on the Atlantic coast, was particularly at risk from the kind of fires that raged out of control for two months in Roraima.
Throughout the arc, running along the Amazon's southernmost limits, small- and large-scale farming and logging have eaten into rain forest areas, reducing the jungle's natural humidity and its resistance to fire.
Krause said the risk of fires would be greatest from June to August, the dry season in the subequatorial Amazon, when farmers traditionally burn land to clear vegetation and fertilize the soil with ash.
Fires started by farmers in Roraima amid a drought linked to the weather phenomenon El Nino were blamed for the recent disaster there. Between 2,300 and 11,500 square miles (6,000 and 30,000 square km), an area the size of Belgium, are believed to have been destroyed by the flames.
Most of the areas affected were savanna or converted farmland, which burn every year. But this time the flames also ate into jungle areas.
Krause said an initial estimate showed the fires caused about $15 million worth of damage to farm and grazing land in Roraima.
He said President Fernando Henrique Cardoso had authorized the creation of a rapid-deployment task force to prevent and fight fires, with new personnel being trained and new equipment acquired. He said the government was studying precisely what kind of equipment was needed.
Officials will draw up maps identifying the areas of the Amazon most at risk from fire, and voluntary brigades of firefighters will be formed in those areas with support from the armed forces, which will provide transport.
Another measure seeks to widen a campaign to instruct farmers about the risk of using fire.
Eduardo Martins, president of the government's Environment Institute, said Brazil's few trained forest firefighters were not prepared for Amazon conditions and had no specialized equipment.
"We have to learn the lesson," Martins said.
Krause said Brazil was in the middle of a disaster relief program in Roraima, helping local farming communities devastated by the fires and several Indian tribes that lost crops and cattle.
The Yanomami Indian tribe, which lives deep in Roraima's rain forest, needed medical assistance to fight an outbreak of malaria, he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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