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Stopping wildfires before they start

Wildfire season is back in the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. Last month, the Brazilian part of the forest saw its highest number of fires in 15 years.

The good news is that scientists can predict where these fires are likely to erupt, so fire crews can respond quickly. Today I’m going to tell you how those predictions work, and about a biologist’s mission to protect the Amazon and other important ecosystems.

That scientist, Liana Anderson, has been studying wildfires for over a decade. She works at Brazil’s disaster warning center, Cemaden, where she leads a group of 17 researchers working on predicting fires in South America.

The work has a double benefit: if you stave off a major fire, you’re not just saving people and property. You save a crucial tool in the fight against climate change. That’s because trees absorb and trap the planet-warming carbon dioxide in their trunks, roots and branches. When they burn, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

To prevent fires, Anderson and her team — which includes scientists from Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia — are starting with data on recently deforested areas. It is a very effective indicator of wildfire activity.

The reason is simple: after trees are cut in a patch of forest, often by farmers seeking pasture for livestock, fire is used to remove the felled wood. And those fires can get out of hand.

“About half of the areas deforested in any given year burn down that same year,” Anderson said. “The rest are time bombs that will burn in a year or two.”

With that in mind, she and her team consider three other variables: above-average temperatures, below-average rainfall and the time of year. The further into the fire season, the drier the forest and the more likely a spark will turn into a blazing wildfire.

The predictions are effective, but not perfect. Even if conditions aren’t favorable for fire, Anderson noted, large areas can still burn. In 2019, for example, when fires in the Amazon shook the world, the forest was not particularly dry.

“When people want to, they set fire to the forest,” she said, referring to farmers, smaller farmers and land grabbers. Understanding the human component “is the part of our methodology that we are trying to improve.”

The team’s most recent calculations estimate that nearly 115 million acres will be highly vulnerable to fires in protected areas in the Amazon rainforest over the next three months. That is an area larger than Germany.

As climate change contributes to heatwaves and droughts leading to more frequent and intense wildfires, scientists like Anderson will become increasingly important to officials seeking to prevent forest destruction.

One of those officials, Waldemir Moreira Jr., a colonel with the fire service of Mato Grosso do Sul, a state in west-central Brazil, said his office used data from Anderson’s team to decide ahead of time where larger teams should go. be placed. The state encompasses much of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. Two years ago, wildfires destroyed a fifth of the area.

The data, he said, “could help me get more resources for prevention,” including the prescribed fires crews have deliberately lit to get rid of fuel that could fuel large fires.

I asked Anderson if she ever gets frustrated that leaders in Brazil aren’t doing more to protect the Amazon. Deforestation continues to increase and wildfires are still raging. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies appointed to protect the forest struggle with low funding and threats of violence from environmental criminals.

Her response was to describe herself as “too optimistic.” It’s a quality I didn’t expect from someone whose work is both incredibly important and incredibly daunting. But perhaps it is a necessary one.

“We don’t get discouraged,” she said, describing how her team cheers when an official reaches out to ask for their details. “There’s no time to sit and cry.”

Related:

  • California’s biggest wildfire yet this year slowed as it approached Yosemite National Park.

  • The United States Forest Service is taking emergency measures to protect giant redwoods from wildfires. About a fifth of these have been destroyed in the past two years.


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Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.

Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message and answer many!

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