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How do you stop a wildfire? | Euronews Answers

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An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019.
An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil, August 23, 2019. -
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Marizilda Cruppe/Amnesty International/Handout via REUTERS
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Boris Johnson has offered money, Pope Francis has called for prayer, and Jair Bolsonaro - Brazil's president - is sending in the military to fight the fires raging through the Amazon rain-forest.

In a video published this weekend by the Brazilian embassy in the U.S., C-130 Hercules military planes are seen dumping thousands of litres of water over the burning Amazon.

Brazil has dispatched two planes to the Amazon after outcry over the worst forest fires the country has ever seen. Brazil’s Space Research Centre reported an 83% increase in fires compared to a year earlier, and other 80,000 fires in Brazil alone.

Brazilian military planes dump thousands of litres of water on the rain-forest.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that the G7 are close to a deal on solving the Amazon fires and repairing the damage, but the plan has been short on detail so far.

Macron said that G7 leaders had agreed to give $20 million (€17.9 million) in emergency funding to combat fires in the Amazon.

But how should that money be spent? And is it possible to prevent wildfires in the first place?

"The key to dealing with this is prevention," said Nigel Sizer, chief programme officer at the Rainforest Alliance, told Euronews.

"Once fires have been ignited it is almost impossible to put them out. These fires are in remote locations and they are going to burn until the debris is burned through."

Wood for the trees

The Amazon did not have a problem with wildfires until human settlement, and research into 8,000 or Amazonian tree species show none of the evolutionary adaptions that are seen in trees that are found on the Savanna, where cycles of burning and regrowth have occurred naturally.

Unlike in wildfires in California or Canada, the Amazon fires are not one single blaze but many small fires - and all started by humans.

"What we are seeing here is a bunch of individual fires set by different people around human activity," Mikaela Weisse, manager at Global Forest Watch in Washington D.C., told Euronews. "It is very rare in the Amazon to have a naturally-occurring fire."

In Brazil, fires are often started during deforestation, when ranchers and farmers burn debris that is left in the clearing process. These burned out areas tend to be drier and more-flammable, meaning that new fires spread more quickly when they reach them.

The pace of deforestation has increased rapidly under President Bolsonaro, who has openly said that he wants to see fewer restrictions on ranchers, loggers and developers in the Amazon. In July, Brazil’s space agency suggested an increase of almost 90% in deforestation over the last 12 months.

So while military planes dumping water on burning forest may look like its solving the problem, in reality it is only by better enforcement that future fires can be prevented, said Sizer.

"Ranchers, loggers, land-speculators - the government needs to make it clear that if they do this, they will go to jail,"

Leonardo DiCaprio

So what of the $20 million promised by Macron, or the cash that has flooded into NGOs in recent weeks from the general public and donors such as Leonardo diCaprio? Well, it certainly won't hurt.

The cash, which comes alongside the UK prime minister Boris Johnson's pledge of £10m (€11m), comes amidst something of a funding crash for agencies involved in rain-forest protection.

Under Bolsonaro funds for the Brazilian environmental protection agency IBAMA have been cut by 95%, resulting in a €3.8m reduction in funds for fire fighting and exacerbated by the loss of an Amazon Fund from Norway and Germany, according to a recent article by two British academics.

Equally, Bolsonaro has openly admitted that he does not believe in enforcement of illegal logging in the Amazon. He has also said that he does not believe indigenous people - often the victims of the fires - should live in the forest, and that they would be better off living in towns and cities.

"Bolsonaro has made it very clear - on the record - that he does not believe in protecting the rainforest," said Sizer.

Next steps

That's a problem, because once forests are gone, they are gone forever. Once burned, forests hold 25% less carbon than unburned forests even after three decades of regrowth, according to research.

Weisse, meanwhile, points out that 8% of global carbon emissions come from forest fires, yet it takes an event like the recent fires in the Amazon to get leaders to talk about it.

"It is great to see world leaders rallying around it," she said, "but there's not a lot of attention being paid towards forests and land use in general."