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Saturday, March 21, 1998 Published at 07:38 GMT

World: Americas

Plea to tackle Amazon inferno
image: [ Firefighters are ill-equipped to tackle the flames ]
Firefighters are ill-equipped to tackle the flames

Michael Voss reports from Roraima (1'25")
Brazil is appealing for more help to tackle forest fires raging out of control in the northern Amazon.

[ image: Fire is devastating Roraima's landscape]
Fire is devastating Roraima's landscape
At least two million acres of farmland have been destroyed in the northern state of Roraima, one of the most inaccessible parts of the country. Now an ancient tribe is under threat.

The fires were started by subsistence farmers, who traditionally clear jungle areas for farmland by slashing and burning.

Juan Anton Tubai of Medicin sans Frontiers describes the devastation (1'08")
But the fires have been burning out of control for more than two months, fanned by high winds, and a drought caused by El Niño. Only one millimetre of rain has fallen this year and no more is forecast until April.

[ image: Brazilian firefighters at work]
Brazilian firefighters at work
Four hundred firefighters were sent to tackle the blaze on Friday, including 100 Argentines, but to reach the more remote regions, they have to trek up to 30 miles (50 km) with heavy equipment or abseil from helicopters to clear landing spots.

The firefighters are targeting the region of Apiau, but they are ill-equipped. They are using water containers, mops, sticks and "flappers" - shovel-sized flyswatters - to beat out the flames.

They are also equipped with chainsaws to cut firebreaks through the jungle.

[ image: A motorcyclist battles through smoke]
A motorcyclist battles through smoke
The flames are moving into the virgin rainforest, which is normally too damp to burn.

That adds to the firefighters' problems. They cannot track the progress of the fire from the air, and dropping water from helicopters is useless because the dense forest canopy prevents the water hitting the ground.

Putting out the fire requires a lengthy, tree-by-tree examination to make sure big trees are not smoldering on the inside.

The scorching heat - 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius) near the fire - and humidity below 30% turn the vegetation into tinder.

Also under threat is the rainforest reserve of the Yanomami Indians, the world's largest Stone Age tribe.

But fire commander Wanius Amorim admitted he could not help the villagers. "The fires are approximately 13 to 18 miles (20 to 28 km) inside the Yanomami reservation," he said. "It's a smaller blaze that does not belong to the main fire as such."

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's spokesman Sergei Amaral (38")
Brazil is allocating an extra $1.8m to the stricken state of Roraima, doubling the federal government's emergency aid package.

But local people believe the government has done too little, too late. "The firemen should have been here two months ago and we wouldn't have to go through all this," said Endalva da Silva while queuing at a government emergency relief office.

[ image:  ]
Meanwhile Friends of the Earth say the Brazilian government ignored an offer from the United Nations two months ago to send in a special UN team experienced in fighting fires in Indonesia.

It said the United Nations Office for Coordination of Human Affairs repeated the offer two weeks ago but never received a reply.

"We are appalled that the Brazilian government appears to have ignored this offer of assistance," Friends of the Earth said. "How much worse will the situation get before we see firm action?"

But a spokeswoman from the Brazilian environment ministry said that it had no record of such an offer being made.

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