By William Schomberg
BRASILIA, March 31 (Reuters) - Rain fell on Tuesday in various areas of Brazil's northern Amazon ravaged by huge savanna and forest fires, just hours after two Indian shamans performed an ancient ritual to bring on the storm clouds.
"In general terms, the rain has been of great help and has reduced the number of fires," said army Col. Jorge Fraxe, a spokesman for Brazil's biggest firefighting effort.
"But all the troops remain in the area and they will continue to work," Fraxe said by telephone from Boa Vista, capital of remote Roraima state, near the Venezuelan border.
In the town's streets, which earlier this week were shrouded in smoke, cars drove carefully through deep puddles. The two shamans, or medicine men, from the distant Kaiapo tribe celebrated in front of television cameras as the clouds opened.
Flown in by the government from central Mato Grosso state, they performed a ritual on the beach of a dried-up river on Monday night, using creepers and other plants from their Xingu region to call on "the men up there" to send down rain.
Officials on Tuesday flew over an area inside the massive rain forest reservation of the Yanomami Indians and reported that fires there had been completely put out by the rain.
The situation improved in other areas badly hit by fires, including the Apiau and Caracarai farming districts, where the biggest groups of a total of 1,700 firefighters are deployed.
Fires continued in those regions, but firefighters were finding it easier to extinguish the flames, Fraxe said.
Rain also fell on the Maraca ecological reservation. Prized by scientists for its remarkable biological diversity, the nature preserve has been damaged by fires.
But other affected areas, like the Pacaraima region, on the Venezuelan border, continued dry.
A forecaster with the National Weather Institute in Brasilia said there was more rain on the way for Roraima.
"There are conditions for further rain until Friday in areas which have been burning," the forecaster said, adding that he expected between 3/8 and 3/4 inch (1 to 1.5 cm) of rain a day over that period.
Fires set by subsistence farmers in Roraima have spread out of control since January amid a drought blamed on the weather phenomenon El Nino. Winds have also hampered the efforts of firefighters to control the hundreds of blazes.
An area the size of Lebanon is believed to have been destroyed, most of it scrub-covered savanna, although flames have advanced into rain forest normally too humid to burn.
Fires have also been raging in neighboring Venezuela and Guyana, sending smoke into northern Brazil.
U.N. disaster experts flew to Boa Vista on Tuesday to assess the damage and to evaluate the kind of foreign aircraft Brazil needs to bolster its firefighting.
Other U.N. officials in Brasilia were awaiting word from them before beginning a search for water-carrying planes and helicopters among U.N. member nations.
Only four specialized water-carrying helicopters, on loan from Argentina, are currently operating in Roraima.
The U.N. is also preparing to help Brazil draw up a risk management plan for the rest of the Amazon, identifying areas where farming and logging have reduced the rain forest's natural humidity and increased its vulnerability to fire.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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