Record numbers of forest fires hit Venezuela during the climate-induced Amazon drought

By | April 1, 2024

By Jake Spring, Mircely Guanipa and Maria Ramirez

SAO PAULO/MARACAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela is battling a record number of forest fires, according to data released on Monday, as a climate change-induced drought ravages the Amazon rainforest.

Satellites recorded more than 30,200 focal points in Venezuela from January to March, the highest level for that period since recording began in 1999, according to Brazilian research firm Inpe, which monitors all of South America.

This also applies to fires in the Amazon region, but also to the country’s other forests and grasslands.

Man-made fires, often set to clear land for agriculture, are spreading out of control thanks to high temperatures and low rainfall in northern South America, as well as a lack of prevention planning, researchers say. Scientists blame the drought on climate change and El Nino, a natural warming event in the eastern Pacific Ocean that is disrupting global weather patterns.

While the rainy season in recent months has provided relief further south in the Brazilian Amazon, the fires in Venezuela could be a worrying sign of what lies ahead once the dry season arrives there, said Manoela Machado, a fire researcher at the University of Oxford.

“All indications are that we will see more catastrophic fires – megafires that are enormous in size and height,” Machado said.

The most intense fires in the region typically occur in August and September in Brazil along the southeastern edge of the Amazon, where deforestation for agriculture is most aggressive.

In Venezuela, about 400 firefighters battled a major fire over the Easter holiday weekend that the national park service said is threatening the lush Henri Pittier National Park, a beachside reserve with rare cloud forests.

“I am shocked, if not alarmed, by this fire,” said Carlos Carruido Perez, who lives nearby. “I had never seen a fire of this magnitude and this damage to the environment.”

Venezuela’s Environment Ministry said last month it had launched a coordinated effort with helicopters and additional equipment to fight the fires in Henri Pittier.

The ministry said last week it was stepping up further firefighting efforts along a highway that runs through the park.

In Venezuela’s southernmost Amazon region, 5,690 fires were active at the end of March, according to NASA data. That is responsible for more than half of all fires burning across the Amazon region in nine countries.

The fires blanketed Guayana City, Venezuela’s largest urban center in the Amazon region, with smoke, according to a Reuters witness.

In the nearby town of Uverito, authorities evacuated 315 families from their homes due to fire risks, local media reported. In Uverito, an area six times the size of Manhattan, about 360 square kilometers have burned, according to Jose Rafael Lozada, a forestry engineer and retired professor at the Universidad de Los Andes in Merida, Venezuela.

REGIONAL RESPONSE IS MISSING

The same hotter, drier weather fueling fires in Venezuela is sparking fires across the border in Brazil’s Roraima state, threatening indigenous reserves there.

Venezuela and Roraima have seen only 10% to 25% of their normal precipitation levels over the past 30 to 90 days, said Michael Coe, director of the tropical program at the U.S.-based Woodwell Climate Research Center.

The region is in a vicious cycle in which climate change contributes to dry and hot conditions that worsen fires, with those fires in turn releasing greenhouse gases that further drive climate change, Lozada said.

Fires generally do not occur naturally in the wet rainforest. People set the vast majority of fires to clear forests for farms and ranches, a longstanding practice, he said.

“People are burning in the same way, but the drought is more extreme. The vegetation is drier, the rain is scarce and we are seeing the consequences: a small burn turns into a fire of large size,” Lozada added.

Drought in the Amazon has upended life in the world’s largest rainforest since last year, sending river levels to record lows, killing endangered dolphins and disrupting boats carrying food and medicine to dozens of cities.

Despite a wealth of information on detecting fires and signaling the climate risks ahead, governments across the region are still failing to formulate a robust response to prevent and combat the fires, said Machado from Oxford.

Governments should ban setting fires during dry spells, respond more quickly and in a targeted manner to stop fires before they get out of control, and hire firefighters year-round rather than on a temporary basis, she said.

In Venezuela, Lozada, firefighters and other experts said the government response was lacking.

The Venezuelan Ministry of Information and the Parks Service did not respond to requests for comment.

“The forest is unprotected due to a lack of equipment to fight forest fires,” said William Lopez, union leader at the state-owned forestry company Maderas del Orinoco.

“Firefighters have to work miracles to fight fires without equipment.”

(Reporting by Jake Spring in Sao Paulo, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Venezuela, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, and Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Venezuela; additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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