Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them?

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? Adam Ronan, Author provided

Imagine a rainforest at dawn – the tall canopy laden with dripping ferns and orchids, tree trunks covered in spongy mosses and lichens, and the morning mist only slowly burning away as the sun rises. While there is fuel everywhere, it seems unimaginable that such humid ecosystems could ever catch fire.

And without human intervention, they don’t. The charcoal record points towards infrequent fires in the Amazon even during periods of pre-Columbian human settlement, and the 8,000 or more Amazonian tree species have none of the evolutionary adaptations to fire found in their savanna or boreal cousins.

But, with thousands of fires currently burning across the Amazon, it’s worth looking at how these wildfires behave. In this context, a “wildfire” is one which has gone out of control, even if started by humans. What do they mean for a forest that hasn’t evolved with fire? And what is needed to prevent further damage?

Contrary to many images circulated online depicting blazing canopies, wildfires in previously undisturbed tropical forests do not appear as ecosystem changing events. Flames advance just 200 to 300 metres a day and rarely exceed 30cm in height, burning only leaf litter and fallen wood.

A fire in undisturbed rainforest burns slowly through the rainforest in Amazonian Brazil (Jos Barlow)


Most mobile animals are able to flee, and firefighters – if present – can bring it to a halt by raking simple fire breaks. Indeed, the humble trails of leaf cutter ants were sufficient to stop forest fires in an experiment in the southern Amazon.

But the intensity of a fire does not necessarily predict its severity. The lack of natural adaptation to deal with wildfires make rainforest species incredibly sensitive. Even a low intensity wildfire can kill half the trees. While small trees are initially most susceptible, larger ones often die in subsequent years leading to an eventual loss of more than half of the forest’s carbon stocks. These large trees hold the most carbon, and subsequent regrowth of pioneer species is no compensation – once-burned, forests hold 25% less carbon than unburned forests even after three decades of regrowth.

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? Fire creeps along the floor of a previously undisturbed Amazonian rainforest. Jos Barlow, Author provided

With such a devastating impact on the trees, it is not surprising that forest-dependent animals and people are also affected. Primates are less abundant in burned forests and many specialist insectivorous birds disappear altogether. And local people, who use forests for game, building materials and medicines, lose one of their most important safety nets.

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? The Wing banded Antbird (Myrmornis torquata) is a secretive oddball terrestrial songbird that flips leaves to look for insects in the forest understorey. The species vanishes in burned forests as fires alter its humid understorey habitat. Alexander Lees

All this happens when a forest burns for the first time. However, the situation is very different when forests suffer recurrent fires. Then, fuel from previous tree mortality creates a veritable bonfire, tinderbox dry under an open canopy. Flame heights in these forests often reach the treetops, causing the death of almost all remaining trees.

Such a scenario has been likened to “savannization” – but while the resulting scrub and sparse trees may share superficial similarities with fire-dependent tropical grasslands, they contain none of their unique biodiversity or cultural values. Instead, recurrent wildfires are more likely to hasten the Amazon’s transition to a low diversity and low carbon ecosystem with a fraction of its current social and ecological value.

The burning issue

We know that forest fires are not a natural process in Amazonia, so why are so many fires happening now? Unfortunately, it is not yet clear exactly what has been burning – satellites detecting active fires and smoke are imprecise guides, and we will only get greater clarity when burn scars are accurately mapped across all land uses. But the current increase is likely to be a mix of three different fire types.

Some of the fires are related to a recent spike in deforestation, when the cut vegetation is burned to create cattle ranches and support land claims. Others will be agricultural burns, when fires are used in rotational agriculture or to clear encroaching scrub from existing pasture.

Alarmingly, and even though this dry season is considered normal, there is evidence that these intentional fires have led to wildfires in standing forests, including in indigenous reserves.

Addressing these fires is complex as many of the activities are illegal or politically motivated. For example, there was a marked increase in fire detection during the recent “day of fire”, and loggers or land speculators have previously been implicated in causing wildfires in indigenous reserves. Furthermore, it is important to separate these illegal fires from the small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture used by Amazonia’s traditional and indigenous people. Although these fires can escape into forests, they are also essential for maintaining the livelihoods of some of the Amazon’s poorest people.

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? Aftermath of burning to clear forest for pasture around the town of Novo Progresso in 2006. This region has been at the epicentre of the 2019 fires and reports of an attempt by local ranchers to send a coordinated message to the Brazilian president that they are ready to go to work clearing the forest. Alexander Lees

When fires do enter the forest, they can be fought with low-tech approaches such as fire breaks. Yet effective combat remains rare, and in most cases help is either delayed or fails to arrive at all.

Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, funds for the Brazilian environmental protection agency IBAMA have been cut by 95%. This has resulted in a R$17.5m reduction in funds for fire fighting that have been exacerbated by the loss of an Amazon Fund from Norway and Germany.

Addressing forest flammability

Reducing wildfires requires going beyond addressing the ignition sources and fighting the flames themselves, and also encouraging actions that limit forest flammability. Tackling deforestation remains key as it exposes forest edges to the hotter and drier microclimate of agricultural land, and contributes to regional reductions in rainfall.

Selective logging also plays a key role in making tropical forests more flammable. Walking in a selectively logged forest in the dry season, you feel the sun’s heat directly on your face and the leaf litter crackles and crunches underfoot. In contrast, unlogged primary forests are a shadier world where the leaf litter remains moist. Fire prevention needs to be a key condition of long-term forest stewardship. This will only work if widespread illegal logging is effectively controlled, as cheaper timber undermines the viability of best-practice forest management.

Finally, climate change itself is making dry seasons longer and forests more flammable. Increased temperatures are also resulting in more frequent tropical forest fires in non-drought years. And climate change may also be driving the increasing frequency and intensity of climate anomalies, such as El Niño events that affect fire season intensity across Amazonia.

Addressing these challenges requires integrated national and global actions, collaboration between scientists and policy makers, and long-term funding – approaches that the current Brazilian administration seems intent on destroying.The Conversation

About The Author

Jos Barlow, Professor of Conservation Science, Lancaster University and Alexander C. Lees, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you,, and at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.



follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…
Stanford Climate Solutions
by Stanford
Climate change has brought us to a defining moment in human history.
Buying Renewable Energy From Your Neighbor
by NBC News
Brooklyn Microgrid, a project of parent company LO3 Energy, is looking to disrupt the more than 100-year-old energy…
Debate Over Pipelines Clouds Concern For Climate Change
by Global News
Climate experts are warning that Canada shouldn't ignore the wildfire crisis in California
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Rice Bowl Of Malaysia Threatened By Climate Change
by The Star Online
Kedah is known as the country’s “Rice Bowl,” and it is especially suitable for the growing of the grain.


Building With Bamboo Can Cool The Climate
Building With Bamboo Can Cool The Climate
by Kieran Cooke
If you want to cut global temperatures try building with bamboo, say UK-based researchers studying its thermal…
To Win A Climate Election, Parties Need Ambition, Not Compromise With The Fossil Fuel Industry
To Win A Climate Election, Parties Need Ambition, Not Compromise With The Fossil Fuel Industry
by Marc Hudson
The UK will go to the polls on December 12 for the third time in four years. Climate change didn’t make waves in…
3 Ways Cities Can Prepare For Climate Emergencies
3 Ways Cities Can Prepare For Climate Emergencies
by Ryan Plummer, et al
Cities are on the front line of climate change. While their footprints cover a mere two per cent of the Earth’s…
How Green Roofs Can Protect City Streets From Flooding
How Green Roofs Can Protect City Streets From Flooding
by Catherine Howell, et al
Spring and summer 2017 have been among the wettest on record in eastern North America.
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
Climate Change Will Magnify Weather Blocking Events
How Climate Change Will Magnify Weather Blocking Events
by InnerSelf Staff
“Blocking events” have produced some of the 21st century’s deadliest heat waves. These stalled high-pressure weather…
Arctic Sea Ice Loss Opens Marine Mammals To Deadly Virus
Arctic Sea Ice Loss Opens Marine Mammals To Deadly Virus
by InnerSelf Staff
Scientists have linked Arctic sea ice loss to a deadly virus that could threaten marine mammals in the North Pacific,…
Scientists’ Climate Gap Is Narrowing
Scientists’ Climate Gap Is Narrowing
by Alex Kirby
A poll shows scientists’ climate gap is shrinking − between their work on climate change and their own response to it.