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Wildfires: Meet the local volunteer firefighters learning to protect the Amazon rainforest

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© Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Rosie Frost
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Spanning eight countries and seven million square kilometres, the Amazon is too big for regular fire brigades to patrol.

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After wildfires destroyed more than 47 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest in 2019, UNESCO launched a programme to identify and address the main causes of deforestation.

‘Slash and burn’ operations are used by industrial agriculture and small farmers alike - but these “controlled fires” can easily get out of hand. So the UN agency set about training nearly 500 volunteer firefighters and providing them with equipment to tackle the problem.

The impact of this initiative has been transformative, according to UNESCO.

The worst wildfire season the Amazon has seen in a decade

An area of the Amazon larger than Sweden burned in 2019, releasing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The most destructive 10 days saw an area of Belgium lost to wildfires.

It was the worst wildfire season the Amazon rainforest had seen in a decade.

But preventing and responding to fires in the Amazon region is a major challenge. The rainforest spans eight countries and nearly seven million square kilometres of land - an area simply too large for fire brigades to effectively patrol.

Settlements are also spread wide across the rainforest meaning local people are frequently the first and only responders when a wildfire starts. Though residents are resourceful in their efforts, many don’t have the training and equipment to prevent the forest from burning.

Who are the Amazon rainforest’s volunteer firefighters?

Since it began after the 2019 fires, the UNESCO initiative has trained nearly 500 volunteer firefighters of all ages. More than half of the participants in training sessions are women.

59-year-old Miriam has always dreamed of being a firefighter. She says that fires in nature fill her with despair, seeing something she has tried to protect being destroyed.

“So, this course that came to us, provided by UNESCO, you can't imagine how gratifying it was. You can't imagine the joy you brought to each one of us,” she says.

“Because if someone sets off a fire, we now have a couple of firefighters here, we have our equipment, and we can go help that person. No amount of money can pay for that.”

I started holding meetings with my community to pass on the knowledge, teach them what to do, create firebreaks to prevent the fire from spreading into the forest.
Miriam
Volunteer firefighter

Miriam is passing what she has learned on to other residents and children in the village too.

“If you ask if fighting fires is scary, it is,” she says.

“But thank God, after the training, I started holding meetings with my community to pass on the knowledge, teach them what to do, create firebreaks to prevent the fire from spreading into the forest.

“And thank God, they are following the guidance we've given them.”

What are volunteer firefighters being taught?

The week-long training sessions are coordinated on the ground by NGO, Fundación Vittoria Amazonica. Communities are selected for training using satellite data and heatmaps to identify which areas have the highest incidence of fire outbreaks.

Among other skills, volunteers are taught professional fire-extinguishing techniques and first aid. They’re also taught how to dig effective fire breaks and identify when controlled burning could turn into an uncontrolled hazard.

“We live in areas where local residents make small fires to clear their plantations, and these sometimes get out of control,” says 24-year-old volunteer Raiuma.

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Sometimes the fire spreads to a part of the forest and those who started it can no longer keep it under control, she explains.

The firefighter course has encouraged us a lot and has helped the community a great deal.
Raiuma
Volunteer firefighter

“As newly trained firefighters, we can help both the community and respond to any calls, so the firefighter course has encouraged us a lot and has helped the community a great deal.”

She has already used the first-aid skills she learned three times in her work as a tour guide. And, she adds, a female firefighter draws a lot of attention encouraging other women to work in this field as well.

“I have always believed it's important to have women in everything, they are a bit more organised, more ambitious.”

The initiative is now spread across four of UNESCO’s internationally designated protected areas - known as biosphere reserves - in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. The UN agency says that these volunteer firefighters are vital as the rainforest gets drier and more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

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Watch the video above to learn more.

Video editor • Joanna Adhem

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