Huge cloud of smoke from a fire in Porto Jofre, state of Mato Grosso. Several fires have devastated the Brazilian Pantanal, the largest flooded area on the planet, just three years after the fire catastrophe that devastated the region and burned a third of the biome with thousands of dead animals. | ROGÉRIO FLORENTINO/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY
The Pantanal is facing the worst fire November in history, since records began by the National Institute for Space Research in the late 90s. With little rain and a brutal heatwave, the fires grow quickly and spread very quickly, reaching animals and threatening property.
Giant clouds of smoke erupt from charred areas, whose fauna, including jaguars, are in danger. Many fires are “out of control” and causing havoc in the Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world. It is the most serious scenario seen in the region since the devastating wave of fires in 2020.
This is a very atypical and unusual situation because November is not the season for fire in the Pantanal, as the rainiest period begins at this time of year. This year, however, it has rained much less than usual and there has been an extraordinary heat wave with consecutive days in which the temperature reaches values of 40ºC to 43ºC in the region.
Data from the National Institute for Space Research, collected by satellites, shows that even before the month has reached its halfway point, this is already the worst November for fires in the Pantanal region, with an absurdly high number of fires for this time of year.
Inpe data shows that between November 1st and 14th alone, satellites recorded 2,660 hot spots. The number already exceeds the worst fire November, which was until then in 2002 with 2,328 outbreaks in the entire month.
The 1998-2022 historical average of hot spots in the Pantanal in November is 442, low compared to the worst monthly historical average, which is September with 2,163 hot spots. With the 2,660 outbreaks recorded in the first two weeks of the month, the first half of November in 2023 alone exceeded the historical monthly average of outbreaks by six times and the fortnightly average by 1200%.
The situation is so serious that on the 13th and 14th of November alone, satellites indicated 404 hot spots in the Pantanal, that is, almost the historical average for the entire month of fire in just two days.
This wave of fire in November in the biome follows months with a number of fires well below historical standards. The months traditionally with the highest number of fires had a very small number of hot spots.
August has a historical average of 1,533 fires, but this year only 110 were observed. In September, which has the highest monthly average of fires with 2,163 fires, the number of fires this year was only 373.
Pantanal faces unprecedented drought and heat
Just like in the great wave of fires in 2020, when more than 8,000 hot spots occurred in September of that year, the well-below-average rainfall helps explain the high number of fires.
In Cuiabá, the accumulated rain at the conventional station of the National Institute of Meteorology between October 1st and November 14th was only 86.9 mm. The historical average for these 45 days would be 220 mm.
If that wasn’t enough, in these 45 days, the city of Cuiabá recorded 24 days with highs above 40ºC. In the first 14 days of November alone, the capital of Mato Grosso had ten days with 40ºC or more. There are nine consecutive days with highs of 40ºC. In October, Cuiabá had the hottest day in its recorded history, which began in 1911, with a maximum of 44.2ºC.
Fire and drought punish animals
On the banks of the Transpantaneira, a dirt road that crosses the Pantanal, an area that should have been completely flooded was reduced to a small lake. Some alligators try to swim, while another is already lifeless out of the water. Dozens of flies fly over the decomposing corpse.
The scene of destruction continues with a dead hedgehog on a carpet of ash in a completely charred wooded area. “This animal probably died from smoke inhalation,” said Aracelli Hammann, a veterinarian with the volunteer group Disaster Animal Rescue Group (Grad).
Hammann is in the Encontro das Águas State Park, one of the most affected regions in the state of Mato Grosso (central west), where there is the largest concentration of jaguars in the world. According to data collected by the NGO Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), 32% of the park’s surface was affected by the flames that have been destroying the vegetation for more than a month.
Environmentalists claim that the fires are out of control amid a heat wave with ten consecutive days of highs above 40ºC and temperatures that in the afternoon reach values as high as 43ºC to 44ºC | ROGÉRIO FLORENTINO/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY
A huge column of smoke in the Pantanal landscape due to a large fire recorded in Porto Jofre, in the state of Mato Grosso, under extreme heat and very dry weather. | ROGÉRIO FLORENTINO/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY
Firefighters face fire day and night in an attempt to preserve Brazil’s natural paradise, but face the adversity of the weather with low humidity, wind and heat at extreme levels | ROGÉRIO FLORENTINO/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY
Carcass of an alligator killed when caught by the flames that devastate areas of the Pantanal in the state of Mato Grosso in the worst November fire in the history of the Brazilian biome | ROGÉRIO FLORENTINO/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY
Colorful view of a bird amidst the landscape charred by a large fire in the state of Mato Grosso during the serious wave of fires that devastate the Pantanal | ROGÉRIO FLORENTINO/AFP/METSUL METEOROLOGY
The other important fire front is in the Pantanal Mato Grosso National Park. Almost a quarter of its surface was burned. The situation “is totally out of control, and is coming face to face with an even bigger focus. With this heat wave and strong winds, the situation will certainly make the situation much worse”, laments Gustavo Figueiroa, biologist and communications director at the SOS Pantanal institute.
“The impacts are so big that it is difficult to measure. Despite the Pantanal being a biome accustomed to fire (…) it has a natural regeneration capacity, but with this intensity, this frequency [de incêndios]this window is closing, he adds.
According to experts, these fires are caused, above all, by human action, especially due to fires to expand agricultural land. But the situation worsened at the end of this year due to an exceptional drought. “We saw several dead animals, such as insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, which are unable to escape.
They are part of a food web and the death of each animal causes a domino effect, until reaching the top predator, such as the jaguar”, reported the expert. In a forest clearing, monkeys run after bananas and eggs left by volunteers.
With the flames, the animals go through “the gray hunger period, when there is no natural food supply in the area”, explains Jennifer Larreia, president of the É o Bicho-MT association. During the historic fires that devastated the region in 2020, his NGO distributed 300 tons of fruit in five months.
The Pantanal is located in a region of more than 170 thousand km², south of the Amazon, and extends across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), this biome is home to 656 species of birds, 159 mammals, 325 fish, 98 reptiles, 53 amphibians and more than 3,500 plant species.