August is the month with the highest number of fires in 2020 in Brazil | WWF
August is the month with the highest number of fires in 2020 in Brazil

Posted on 01 September 2020

More than half of the fires in the Brazilian Amazon and Pantanal occurred in August.
São Paulo, 1 September -- Despite the creation of the "Amazon Council" and the promise of greater control over the biome by the Brazilian army, the number of fires rose dramatically in August 2020. Of the 43,013 fires recorded in all of 2020, 66.5% occurred in August. At 29,301 fires, the number was very close to record levels seen in August 2019, when 30.900 fires were reported during the month. 

The fires situation in the Pantanal continues to worsen: there was an increase of 220% in the number of fires from 1 January to 31 August. According to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), there were 10,153 hot spots; in the same period of 2019, 3,165 fires were registered.

“If these trends continue, there will be devastating consequences in the long run due to the release of millions of extra tons of carbon dioxide, loss of species, and destruction of vital ecosystems. Besides, fires pose a risk of serious health problems, in addition to threatening local livelihoods”, says Mariana Napolitano, WWF-Brazil's Head of Sciences.

“The total number of fires from January to August in the Amazon shows a number 39% higher than the average of the last ten years for the same period”, says Raul Valle, director of Social and Environmental Justice at WWF-Brazil. “Despite the millions spent on the Army's presence in the Amazon, and the ban on the use of fire, this year's numbers remain well above the historical average. A small drop in August numbers, when compared to 2019, means almost nothing, given that last year the numbers were very high. It's possible that until the end of the dry season, part of what has been illegally deforested will not be burned. This would reduce the number of fires in the Amazon and would give the impression that the problem is under control. But this is not a cause for celebration – the deforestation must stop increasing, and this hasn't happened yet.”

Given the sharp increase in fires and the forecast of a still harsh summer for September and October, the government of Acre declared an environmental emergency on Tuesday, 1 September. According to a NASA study, the state is the most likely to suffer from forest fires in 2020 due to weather conditions.

Pará, Amazonas, and Acre 

Pará (10,865 fires), Amazonas (8,030 fires) and Acre (3,578 fires) were the Amazonian states considered the ‘burning champions’ of August 2020, according to Inpe. 

Two of the ten municipalities that burned the most last month are from Pará: Altamira and São Félix do Xingu. They are accompanied by Poconé and Corumbá, both in Mato Grosso, Novo Progresso (PA), Apuí (AM), Barão de Melgaço (MT), Porto Velho (RO), Lábrea (AM) and Novo Aripuanã (AM). 

It’s noteworthy that Acre has risen to the third position among the states. In the same period last year, the state ranked fifth, behind Pará, Amazonas, Rondônia, and Mato Grosso. Now, the fires have surpassed even neighboring Rondônia - one of the Amazonian states where the deforestation rates are historically very high.

Data shows that the fires in Acre are concentrated in the most preserved forest area of the state - the Juruá Valley, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

The municipalities of Feijó, Tarauacá, and Manoel Urbano form the “leading fire” trio. The latter has been greatly impacted by the invasion of public lands within its territory. Another worrying data is the high record of fires in isolated municipalities like Jordão, Marechal Thaumaturgo, and Porto Walter - whose access is only possible by boat or by plane.

The distance and geographical isolation of these municipalities has not prevented them from being impacted by the devastation of the Amazon. This is a region that still conserves immense areas of intact forests, home to indigenous groups and local communities, and countless animal and plant species.

In the state of Amazonas, the focus of devastation continues in the municipalities of the south and southeast of the state, which are part of the so-called ‘Deforestation Arc’. The recordholder in fires last month was Apuí, with 1,482 outbreaks.  

The main reason for the increased number of fires in this part of the Amazon is the deforestation of public lands and the expansion of pastures.

When comparing the total number of fires in the Amazon biome accumulated this year with the same period in 2019, there is a reduction of 6%. It’s important, however, to stay vigilant as September is a month of high temperatures and low humidity and fires could very well maintain the same trend or even increase.  

Pantanal

From 1 January to 31 August, 10,153 hot spots were detected in the Pantanal, according to Inpe; a 220% increase in comparison with the same period in 2019, when 3,165 outbreaks were recorded.

The similarity with the neighboring Amazonia biome is the fact that most of these fires (58.4%) occured in the month of August. Altogether there were 5,935 fires. The vast majority of them (4,215) were detected in Mato Grosso, while Mato Grosso do Sul had 1,720.

“These numbers show the fragility of Pantanal in the face of changes in the region's rainfall regime”, says Júlio César Sampaio, leader of the WWF Pantanal Initiative, which brings together Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. “Unfortunately, the problem with fires is likely to persist in the coming days. Data from the National Institute of Meteorology (Inmet) brings alerts to the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul: the relative humidity of the air should vary between 20% and 12%. In addition to the risk of forest fires, the health of the population will also be affected, since low humidity exacerbates respiratory problems.” 

The main reason for the record burning in Pantanal is severe drought - the rainy season in 2020 recorded very low rainfall. Many Pantanal areas that should still be drenched have overgrown dry vegetation, which contributes to the proliferation of fires. 

“It’s fundamental that a new system for handling and fighting fires must be created and installed, as the crisis tends to repeat itself annually. We will need to prepare ourselves with warning systems, prioritization tools, mobilization of volunteers, and the creation of a public apparatus to fight against this type of environmental crisis”, says forest engineer Cassio Bernardino, conservation analyst at WWF-Brazil. “Studies by Embrapa Pantanal indicate a concentration of rainfall in shorter periods, while researchers at the Mato Grosso Federal University (UFMT) have already shown that without a cycle with no fires the biome can become a desert.”

What WWF-Brazil has been doing

WWF has been providing both immediate support for fighting fires and continuously against deforestation both in the Pantanal and the Amazon. 

In the Amazon, WWF-Brazil's main objective is to support local forest guardians (indigenous peoples and local communities) so that they have the tools and training to monitor threats, such as deforestation and invasions of territories that have led to an increase in fires. Since August 2019, WWF-Brazil has been reinforcing its actions to combat fires and strengthen territorial surveillance in the Amazon. Our projects have already reached 55.8 million hectares, or 13.8% of the Brazilian Amazon, an area larger than the sum of the territories of Spain and Switzerland.

In the specific context of Covid-19, more than 32,000 people - indigenous and agroextrativist – have received food, hygiene products, and equipment in the Amazon and Cerrado.

In the Pantanal, WWF-Brazil supports firefighters brigades training. 

For further information:
Karina Yamamoto - Engagement Coordinator, WWF-Brazil - karinayamamoto@wwf.org.br
Banks of the Acre River, in Rio Branco, capital of the state of Acre, 23 August, 2020.
© Claudio de Oliveira / WWF-Brasil
In the Pantanal, WWF-Brazil supports firefighter brigades training as shown in the image from Mato do Grosso do Sul State. WWF-Brazil is part of Observatório do Pantanal.
© Elias Campos / Observatório do Pantanal