Rain douses Brazil's Amazon fires but risk persists

By William Schomberg

BRASILIA, April 1 (Reuters) - Rain has put out virtually all the fires raging in the savannah and jungles of Brazil's northern Amazon, but one official warned on Wednesday there was still a risk of new outbreaks.

Satellite images showed that more than 95 percent of the worst Amazon fires on record had been extinguished by heavy rains on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa) said.

"We're out of the crisis phase," said Evaristo de Miranda, an environmental researcher at Embrapa. "It's a divine coincidence. Most of the rain fell on the areas with most fires."

But the head of Brazil's Environment Institute said it was too early to declare the crisis over because carpets of leaves and branches in the jungle stayed dry and could burn again.

"We must not be too optimistic," Eduardo Martins said by telephone from Boa Vista, capital of the remote Roraima state on Brazil's border with Venezuela. "There is a risk of reignition. We must hope for further heavy rain."

Weather forecasters said rain was expected to fall in Roraima for the next three days. The region's rainy season is only expected to begin fully at the end of April.

Fires set by subsistence farmers and fueled by a drought linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon have raged for more than two months in Roraima, ravaging an area the size of Lebanon, according to an official estimate.

While much of the area affected is savannah, where the vegetation recovers quickly after fire, flames have also advanced into the more fragile rainforest, including the huge reservation of the primitive Yanomami Indians.

As firefighters struggled with the flames, a downpour on Tuesday, followed by more rain on Wednesday, proved decisive.

"All the planes in the world would not have been able to match what the heavens dumped on Roraima over the last two days," de Miranda said.

An army spokesman for a 1,700-strong firefighting team in Roraima said that while the rain was a relief, the operation would continue at full pace.

"The rain helped a lot but the fight continues because not all the fires are out," the spokesman said.

In Boa Vista, people celebrated as the smoke which has hung over the region for weeks was washed away.

Television newscasts showed firemen dancing in puddles while two Indian shamans, who on Monday night performed a traditional rain-conjuring ritual, smiled for the cameras in the downpour.

Many residents have attributed the rain to the medicine men. But de Miranda said there was also a scientific explanation. Rains often follow the passage of the sun directly over the equator and that phenomenon, marking the start of sub-equatorial spring, occurred on March 20, he said.

As concerns over controlling the fires eased, the Brazilian government and international organizations began considering ways of avoiding further fires in the Amazon.

World Bank representatives were holding talks with Brazilian disaster relief officials over a possible loan to fund prevention and detection of forest fires, the Planning Ministry said.

Brazil has no specialized airborne firefighting equipment of its own and its few trained forest firefighters had never worked in the Amazon before the crisis in Roraima.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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