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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 22:39 GMT 23:39 UK

World: Americas

Brazil fires spread south

The dryness of the land is encouraging the blaze to spread

Forest fires in Brazil are still raging out of control, and have spread to the south-east of the country, following little or no recent rainfall in the area.

"Everything is at risk," said Silvio Sa, of Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency, Ibama. "There appear to be a lot more fires than last year."

The burning season, when farmers and ranchers set fire to brush in order to clear land for planting or pasture, takes place in August and September.

But this year, the desert-like dryness and humidity mean that the fires have not been contained.

[ image: The fires are causing breathing problems for nearby communities]
The fires are causing breathing problems for nearby communities
They are at their fiercest along the southern rim of the Amazon jungle, a three-state strip known as the "arc of deforestation."

"The humidity in Sao Paulo is under 20 percent. That's very unusual," said Carlos Nobre, head of the Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies division of Brazil's Space Research Institute in Sao Jose dos Campos.

"And there is no rain in sight."

Satellite images identified more than 31,000 fires in 15 states last month, according to Ibama. But the total may be higher, as its satellites cannot register fires through clouds or thick smoke.

Nearly half the fires detected by satellites were in the huge midwestern state of Mato Grosso, which contains both Amazon rain forest and the Pantanal, the world's largest wetlands.

[ image: The fires are sometimes started deliberately]
The fires are sometimes started deliberately
Near the mountain resort of Petropolis, near Rio, scores of firefighters battled a blaze in the Serra dos Orgaos National Park.

By Wednesday, the blaze had destroyed 175 acres of parkland, including pristine tracts of Atlantic forest.

In the southern state of Parana, fire ravaged more than 125,000 acres of the Ilha Grande National Park on its border with Mato Grosso do Sul.

Health problems are also a major concern, with hospitals reporting a sharp increase in respiratory ailments after clouds of red dust mixed with smoke covered Cuiaba, the state capital. Temperatures there hit 44C this week.

Television footage showed schoolchildren wearing surgical masks and a banner saying in Portuguese: "We Want to Breathe."

The environmental protection agency has been co-ordinating firefighting efforts, shipping equipment and enlisted the help of the army, navy and various police forces.

A plane equipped with NASA-designed sensors and digital cameras has been provided by the US Government. It is capable of mapping the spread of fires through the smoke cover and relaying the information to firefighters.

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