British Columbia

Forest fires in Amazon share little in common with B.C.'s blazes, expert says

It's ultimately up to the Brazilian government to prevent future damage to the rainforest, says local fire ecologist.

Brazil's fires created by humans; half of B.C.'s fires caused by lightning

A fire burns trees and brush along the road to Jacunda National Forest in the Vila Nova Samuel region of Brazil's Amazon. (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)

Thousands of forest fires now burning across South America's Amazon rainforest may remind British Columbians of smoky summers past, but a local fire ecologist says they share few characteristics.

"The big difference is these are all human-caused fires,"" Robert Gray told CBC's Daybreak Kamloops this morning. "There hasn't been any lightning activity [in Brazil]. Our fires in the Pacific Northwest ... tend to be about 50-50 lightning and human."

Many of the fires are started by local farmers using slash-and-burn techniques which has transformed large swaths of the tropical rainforest into rangeland, Gray explained.

Slash-and-burn agriculture involves clear-cutting an area and then burning any remaining vegetation, producing a nutrient-rich layer amenable to farming, but only temporarily. The deforested land does not remain fertile for long. Generally, farmers abandon the degraded land after only a few years.

"What used to be [a] multiple-species, tropical rainforest is now a very simplified system which is not good for the planet," explained the Chilliwack-based scientist. 

The Amazon's rainforests also absorb carbon dioxide, considered a critical defence against rising temperatures and other disruptions caused by climate change. 

"There's just so many of them"

Then there is the sheer number of fires. 

A couple thousand fires in one year would be considered a lot for this province, said Gray. An estimated 165,000 forest fires are burning across the Amazon, with more than 75,000 fires in Brazil alone. According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there have been 84 per cent more wildfires recorded across the country so far this year compared with 2018.

"There's just so many of them," Gray said. "They're spread out all across the landscape, from Bolivia right through to Brazil. So, it's very, very hard to put them out."

Like other experts, Gray blamed the new Brazilian government for the staggering uptick in forest fires by encouraging deforestation and ignoring environmental rules. 

Environmental groups say Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged increased clearing of the Amazon rainforest for agriculture and development. (Getty Images)

Last weekend, the Group of Seven nations pledged $26.5 million Cdn to help fight the flames in the Amazon and protect the rainforest, in addition to a separate $15.8 million Cdn from Britain and $15 million Cdn from Canada.

After initially refusing the foreign aid, Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro then reversed course and said the country would accept monetary assistance on the condition Brazil decides how it is spent. Bolsonaro has also demanded an apology from French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, claiming France's leader had called him a liar and questioned Brazil's sovereignty over the Amazon. 

The situation won't improve, Gray says, until Brazil reverses its current policies.  

"We know what's causing it," he said. "This is a policy issue, and it's going to take some pressure [placed] on the existing government to go back to the previous policies which were focused on restoring the rainforest."

The thousands of forest fires now scattered across the Amazon share few characteristics with the blazes that emerge in B.C.’s interior every year. For one, Robert Gray says, they're all caused by humans. Then there's the sheer number of wildfires. 4:12

With files from Thomson Reuters

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