Wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest have hit a record number this year, with 72,843 fires detected so far by Brazil’s space research center INPE, as concerns grow over right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policy.
The surge marks an 83% increase over the same period of 2018, the agency said on Tuesday, and is the highest since records began in 2013.
Since Thursday, INPE said satellite images spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the country, mostly in the Amazon basin, home to the world’s largest tropical forest seen as vital to countering global warming.
Images show the northernmost state of Roraima covered in dark smoke. Amazonas declared an emergency in the south of the state and in its capital Manaus on 9 August. Acre, on the border with Peru, has been on environmental alert since Friday due to the fires.
Wildfires have increased in Mato Grosso and Para, two states where Brazil’s agricultural frontier has pushed into the Amazon basin and spurred deforestation. Wildfires are common in the dry season, but are also deliberately set by farmers illegally deforesting land for cattle ranching.
The unprecedented surge in wildfires has occurred since Bolsonaro took office in January vowing to develop the Amazon region for farming and mining, ignoring international concern over increased deforestation.
Asked about the spread of uncontrolled fires, Bolsonaro brushed off criticism, saying it was the time of the year of the “queimada” or burn, when farmers use fire to clear land.
“I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada,” he told reporters.
Space agency INPE, however, said the large number of wildfires could not be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone.
“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” said INPE researcher Alberto Setzer.
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People frequently blame the dry season for the wildfires in the Amazon, but that is not quite accurate, he said.
“The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” Setzer said.
Bolsonaro recently fired the director of INPE after he criticized agency statistics showing an increase in deforestation in Brazil, saying they were inaccurate.
“I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made-up numbers. If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you,” he told reporters.