SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil’s massive Pantanal wetlands haven’t technically entered annual fire season, but already the number of blazes has broken records and is leading experts to predict this year will be the most devastating in decades.

Typically the world’s largest tropical wetlands dry out and are prone to fires from July to September. But the National Space Research Institute’s satellites spotted over 2,500 fires in the region in June alone — by far the most ever recorded for the month in data going back to 1998. It’s more than six times the amount in the same month of 2020, known as the “the year of flames,” when wildfires ravaged the area and sparked widespread outcry.

“We are facing one of the worst situations ever seen in the Pantanal,” Environment Minister Marina Silva told journalists Monday, adding that the entire Paraguay River basin is experiencing severe water scarcity.

The Pantanal — fed by tributaries of the Paraguay River and mostly located in Brazil — is a biodiversity hotspot, and it’s a popular destination for tourists wishing to see jaguars, macaws, caimans, capybaras and migratory birds in the wild.

But now, instead of its charming natural scenes, what Brazilians are seeing from the Pantanal are devastating fires devouring the flora and charred animals.

On Friday, Silva flew to Corumba, one of the most affected cities, with Planning and Budget Minister Simone Tebet, who was born and built her political career in the region. Both described what they saw as painful.

“It was a river winding like a wall, trying to hold back the fire,” Silva said. “Amid so much ash, there was a tree blooming, in gratitude for life. We cannot destroy it.”

The environment minister attributed the fires to human activity, climate change and prolonged effects of El Nino and La Nina phenomena that alter sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean.

Brazil’s federal government has deployed 285 agents from various agencies as well as 82 National Guard members to support local fire brigades.

After the record fires of 2020, which scorched nearly 30% of the Pantanal in Brazil, local authorities expanded their fire committees to include different government branches and environmental nonprofits, such as World Wildlife Fund and SOS Pantanal. The committees discuss fire management and monitoring and train local communities in fire prevention and early response.

They are already struggling to contain the current blazes. Manuel Garcia da Silva, head of a fire brigade, says his biggest difficulties are the distance between them and the terrain, ranging from savannah to wetlands.

“Most of the fires in the Pantanal are underground. We can’t see them, but around 10 in the morning, they start emerging again,” he told The Associated Press. “They keep burning underground due to the material deposited by the floods in the Pantanal. These fires are very difficult to manage, as they burn through nearly one meter of material under the soil.”

Garcia da Silva said his brigade spends seven hours a day fighting fires, often two days in a row. “As long as we have strength, we keep fighting,” he added.

Conditions in the Pantanal today are more severe than in 2020 — and expectations for extreme drought in August and September are causing further alarm.

“It may worsen the fire situation,” said Vinicius Silgueiro, coordinator of territorial intelligence at the Center of Life Institute in Mato Grosso state.

During the rainy season, rivers overflow their banks, flood the land and make most of it accessible only by boat and plane. This year, the Paraguay River basin saw a significant deficit of rainfall since the rainy season began in October.

In June, all but one of the rivers 12-meter (39-foot) deep in the region showed below-average levels for this time of year, according to a June 26 bulletin by the Geological Survey of Brazil. The office warned in February that 2024 could be one of the driest years on record in Brazil.

“The current situation is extremely worrying. Due to the prolonged drought and high temperatures, the vegetation is under stress, which makes it predisposed to burning,” said Renata Libonati, a meteorology professor who coordinates the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s alert system for Pantanal fires. Since January, fires destroyed over 688,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of the Brazilian area of the biome, according to her monitoring system.

Most of the ongoing fires are very likely to be human-caused rather than stemming from natural causes such as lightning, according to Libonati. Earlier this week, Minister Silva said that 85% of the fires originated in private properties.

Traditional farmers in the region use fire to manage and renew pasture areas, although the practice is prohibited during the dry season. The ban usually takes effect each July 1, but authorities this year moved the date to early June because of dry conditions.

Silva sounded the alarm about the looming risk of Pantanal blazes on June 5, during a World Environment Day ceremony. Environmental organizations that work in the region had been warning of the danger long before that.

“In 2020, it was said that the next four years would be very dry, and the water levels in the Pantanal would not recover,” Osvaldo Barassi Gajardo, a conservation specialist at World Wildlife Fund, said by phone.

A recent study by Brazil’s space research institute found that dry and semi-arid areas have expanded across the country over the past 30 years. Proportionally, the Pantanal was the Brazilian biome that has dried up most since 1985, according to a study released earlier this week by MapBiomas, a research initiative that maps land usage. In the next few decades, Brazil’s center-west region, where the Pantanal is located, is expected to become hotter while its southern region turns rainier, according to an extensive climate study the office of Brazil’s presidency commissioned in 2015.

In May, severe storms and flooding in southern Brazil killed nearly 200 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. It was one of the country’s worst-ever climate catastrophes and locals are still struggling to recover.

In Brazil’s Pantanal, many fear the worst is yet to come. According to official data, the months from July to September typically have at least 20 times more fires compared to June.

“We still need to be very alert about what might happen in the coming months. It is important to redouble prevention efforts, try to combat the fire now and have much more prevention and monitoring action by the public authorities,” said Gajardo of the World Wildlife Fund.


Hughes reported from Rio de Janeiro.


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