Stamping out wildfires

STAMPING OUT WILDFIRES

When wildfires start they can quickly get out of control. In 2006-07, at the same time as government strikes, wildfires threatened the Cerrado Protected Areas World Heritage site in southern Brazil. Crucial funds from the RRF mobilized firefighting crews to tackle fires, ultimately protecting over 1,300 hectares of critical jaguar habitat from destruction.

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The Cerrado Protected Areas World Heritage site in central Brazil consists of two national parks that characterise the grassland habitat called ‘cerrado’ – one of the world’s oldest and most diverse tropical ecosystems.

Being at the heart of Brazil’s most productive farmland, the cerrado savannahs are disappearing at a faster rate than the Amazon rainforest; 80% of the original area of cerrado habitat has already been lost.

The World Heritage site contains the best remaining grasslands in Central America and is considered to be one of the most important sites for the conservation of large mammals in South America. The site is therefore crucial in maintaining healthy populations of many highly threatened species endemic to the cerrado, including the grassland jaguars for which the site is famed.

In the dry season, the cerrado is prone to fires - which can be the result of natural fires or fires set by ranchers to manage their pastures. Such fires can often rage out of control and have the potential to destroy large swathes of critical habitat within the World Heritage site. Fire prevention and management are therefore critical parts of maintaining the park’s integrity.

RRF resources were essential to hire and cover working costs of the firefighters during the most critical period of the fire-prone season.
Mario BarrosoCerrado Regional Program, Conservation International

In 2006-07, the wildfires were very intense, which was attributed the El Ninô climate phenomenon. The effects of this severe weather system meant that there were also particularly strong winds, which facilitated rapid spread and intensification of the fires.

Fire prevention and control within the World Heritage site is usually the responsibility of the Brazilian environment agency, however the agency was affected by strike action at exactly the time the cerrado required urgent attention. All firefighting and prevention efforts were completely stalled, as funding for additional staff and equipment could not be released from the agency’s headquarters.

As fires began to burn it was clear that intervention was needed to get boots on the ground to tackle wildfires and prevent other areas of the park from being affected.

In response to two applications for support, the RRF awarded emergency grants to each of the national parks that make up the World Heritage site. The grants enabled two local organisations, ‘Oreades’ and ‘Rede de Integracao Verde’ to respond to the situation and maintain fire management regimes.

Over 30 trained firefighters were contracted and equipment was provided to help ensure that fire prevention could continue in line with the site management plans. The firefighting teams immediately created approximately 350 km of firebreaks to protect vulnerable habitat and were on hand to tackle blazes in the site.

There was mixed success across the two sites; fires in Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in particular were very intense and difficult to control despite extensive efforts. In Emas National Park the teams were highly successful in controlling burning and there was very little damage to the habitat. The grantees attributed this to the preventative works carried out by the fire brigade, made possible through RRF funding.

Following the successful implementation of the RRF grants and the crucial role played by qualified firefighters, more firefighters were taken on as staff by the Brazilian environment agency increasing the number of employees within the World Heritage site with expertise of fire-fighting. This would not have been likely without the intervention of the organisations that were supported by RRF funding.

Fire management in Chapada dos Veadeiros, which was badly damaged, was much more effective in subsequent years. Firefighters were able to redeploy equipment provided by the RRF and as a result, only 15 hectares of the park were damaged in 2008, which was a record for the site. According to the park managers, this was due ‘in great part because of the support of the RRF’ in the previous year.

Over the years the RRF has tackled fires in some of the world’s most precious habitats. We recognise that in such dangerous conditions, often in isolated locations, bespoke and ingenious solutions are required to assist teams in the field. The RRF provides an effective mechanism to get funds to the field fast and is responsive to the needs of grantees during emergencies, in order to safeguard our natural heritage in times of extreme crisis.

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