Venezuela’s record wildfires hit during climate-driven Amazon drought

By Jake Spring, Mircely Guanipa and Maria Ramirez

SAO PAULO / MARACAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela is battling a record number of wildfires, according to data released on Monday, as climate change-driven drought ravages the country’s rainforest region. Amazon.

Satellites registered more than 30,200 fire points in Venezuela from January to March, the highest level for that period since records began in 1999, according to Brazil’s Inpe research agency, which monitors all of South America.

That includes fires in the Amazon, as well as 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 in the eastern Pacific Ocean that rolls global weather patterns.

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

“Everything indicates that we are going to see other catastrophic fire events – megafires that are huge in size and height,” said Machado.

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

In Venezuela, about 400 firefighters battled a large fire over the Easter holiday weekend that is threatening the lush Henri Pittier National Park, a beach preserve with rare forests, according to the national parks service.

“I’m surprised, if not so scared, by this fire,” said Carlos Carruido Perez, who lives nearby. “I have 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 that further firefighting efforts were underway along a highway that cuts through the park.

In Venezuela’s Amazon region further south, 5,690 fires have been active since late March, according to NASA data. That represents more than half of all the blazes burning in the Amazon across nine countries.

According to a Reuters witness, the fires have filled with smoke the City of Guiana, Venezuela’s largest urban center in the Amazon.

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


The same hotter and drier weather is helping to fuel fires in Venezuela driving fires across the border in the Brazilian state of Roraima, threatening indigenous reserves there.

Venezuela and Roraima have seen only 10% to 25% of their normal rainfall levels in the past 30 to 90 days, said Michael Coe, director of the tropics program at the US-based Woodwell Climate Research Center.

The region is in a vicious cycle where climate change contributes to dry and hot conditions that fuel fires, and those fires release greenhouse gases that further fuel climate change, Lozada said.

Fires generally do not occur naturally in the rainforest. Most of the fires were set by people to clear the forest for farms and ranches, a long-standing practice, he said.

“People burn the same, but the drought is more extreme. The vegetation is drier, the rain is scarce and we see the consequences: a small stream turns into a big fire,” Lozada added.

The Amazon drought has wreaked havoc on the world’s largest rainforest since last year when it pushed river levels to record lows, killed endangered dolphins and disrupted boats transporting food and medicine to dozens of cities.

Despite a wealth of information tracking fires and predicting the climate risks ahead, governments across the region are still failing to respond strongly to preventing and fighting the fires, Oxford’s Machado said.

Governments should ban firefighting during dry spells, set up a faster targeted response to stop fires before they get out of control and hire firefighters year-round rather than temporarily, she said.

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

Venezuela’s information ministry and parks service did not respond to requests for comment.

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

“Firefighters have to work miracles to be able 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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