The city of Ribeirão Preto in Brazil’s São Paulo state is known for its high standard of living, sunny weather and large agricultural industry, earning it the nickname of the “Brazilian California.” Built on what was once a coastal forest, the municipality of 620,000 people is highly urbanized and surrounded by sugar, orange and rice plantations as well as cattle farms.
Due to weather and climatic conditions, the region surrounding Ribeirão Preto has recently suffered from a rising number of fires. According to Brazil’s Journal A Cidade, the area has seen a whopping 144 fires over a period of just 30 days, for an average of four fires per day in the region’s green areas.
Strong winds and drought conditions regularly put parts of São Paulo state at risk of brush fires, but compared to last year’s statistics — 30 fires in the region and just 16 in the municipality during the same time period — the situation in 2014 is far more extreme.
Brazil as a whole is experiencing a sharp increase in forest fires, according to research released by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. A perfect storm of slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation and decreased precipitation is producing a plague of forest fires, particularly in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso and Maranhão. The changing climate will only complicate matters further in the future.
According to one of the country’s most prominent climate scientists, the slash-and-burn technique of clearing forestland for cattle pastures actually prevents much-needed rain and makes rainforest vegetation far more vulnerable to fires.
From the Guardian:
The smoke from forest fires introduces too many particles into the atmosphere, dries the clouds, and they don’t rain. During the dry period, of the fires, the forest always maintained a little rain that left it humid and non-flammable, but now two months go by without rain, the forest gets very dry, and the fire gets into it. Amazon trees, unlike those of the Cerrado, have no resistance to fire.
—Antonio Nobre, climate scientist, Brazilian Ministry of Science
But it is not slash-and-burn that is causing the fires in São Paulo state, where the blazes are instead called a “climatic phenomenon.”
And even though the region around São Paulo is no stranger to strong winds and even whirlwinds combining with exceptionally dry conditions to spark fires (like this so-called “fire tornado” in the city of Araçatuba), the recent increase of blazes in Ribeirão Preto is still exceptional.
According to Folha de São Paulo, the overall incidence of fires has risen by 138 percent compared to a year ago, while certain parts of the state have seen even steeper increase. Franca, located 89 km. northeast of Riberão Preto, saw a leap from 50 to 344 fires this period, a 588 percent climb.
The question in Brazil at the moment, though, is this: Is the escalation in fires an anomaly or something we can expect more of in the future as a consequence of global climate change?