Fires in Brazilian wetlands surge 980%, extreme drought expected

By Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Fires in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands have surged nearly tenfold so far this year to the highest levels since 2020, when the biome suffered its worst blazes on record.

Satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) showed a 980% increase in the number of fires in the Pantanal through June 5, compared with the same period of last year. The figures have raised alarms as the region heads into the riskiest season for wildfires, which usually starts in July and peaks in August and September.

“It’s one of the worst starts of year in terms of hot spots since the beginning of the historical series in 1998,” said Vinicius Silgueiro, territorial intelligence coordinator at local NGO Instituto Centro de Vida.

The Pantanal wetlands, roughly 10 times the size of the Florida everglades, are home to jaguars, tapirs, caimans, anacondas and giant anteaters. Weak rains since late last year have disrupted the usual seasonal flooding, leaving more of the region vulnerable to fires.

“What’s most worrying is that even in the rainy season we had this increase in fires,” Silgueiro said.

He warned that the Pantanal is likely to face another strong drought this year, after a wet season with rains 60% below the average, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology (INMET).

The latest surge in fires comes after atypical blazes at the end of 2023, when the El Nino climate phenomenon delayed the rainy season, leading to 4,134 fires registered in November, compared with an historical average of 584 for the month.

Brazil’s government signed a pact on Wednesday with state governors in the Pantanal and Amazon regions to fight wildfires. Mato Grosso do Sul, a state containing most of the country’s Pantanal, has already declared an environmental emergency.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marguerita Choy)

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