Pantanal in 2020. Photo by: Juliana Arini/WWF Brasil

Women-Led Fire Brigades Mitigate Wildfires in Brazil’s Pantanal

In 2020, Brazil’s Baguari Island saw its largest wildfire. Amongst the many worried residents was Roseli dos Santos, as they saw their family’s home almost burned. They resorted to combatting the fire, often risking themselves. “Families on the Island had to stay for hours in a camp waiting for the smoke to dissipate. Beside this, it was difficult to watch the plants and animals suffer due to the fire,” Santos says. 

This 2020 wildfire destroyed 26% of Pantanal, an important biome on the border between Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. This wetland has the largest density of mammal species per square kilometre in the world. Apart from otters, deer, maned wolf, alligators, and snakes, Pantanal is also one of the last remaining strongholds of jaguars in the world. 

The fire of 2020 was the worst ever recorded in the region, and gravely affected this biodiversity. A total of 3.878.650 hectares were burned and more than 17 million animals died. According to the Public Ministry of Mato Grosso, a Brazilian state, about 141.2 million mg of GHG were released, including CO2, CH4, and N2O.

After some days of counting the losses due to the fire, Santos and her daughters knew they needed to do something. Milena, the youngest, had an idea: to prepare women to combat the fire. Since women work at the forefront collecting baits while touring the entire islands, they could be effective as the first respondents to such fires. 

A year after the initial idea, seven women formed the Baguari Fire Brigade. Another five worked in support. “We invited our colleagues from a group of embroiderers. We used to meet to embroider, and so we decided to form the Brigade”, says Roseli. Initially, women were unsure about their ability to take on this responsibility. But since they already worked as a group, they helped each other to feel confident about this new initiative.

Fires in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. 2020. Photo credit: Silas Ismael / WWF-Brazil.

Today, Baguari is one of 24 fire brigades formed or currently trained by the NGO Ecoa. It is the first women-only group. 

Where wildfires are becoming increasingly a challenge in a warming world, such small-scale community groups help in one of the most crucial aspects of firefighting– response time. If the firefighting starts up to three hours after the first focus, the chances of success of dousing the fire are higher. In this regard, organized, local brigades in the territory as such groups can arrive much faster than the nearest fire team, and help limit the damage to biodiversity. 

Preparing the Brigades 

André Luiz Siqueira, NGO Ecoa’s president, says that 90% of these groups are formed by population initiative. “There are indigenous people groups, fishermen’s groups, and others. All of them are formed by local volunteers”, Siqueira says. 

Ecoa works for the conservation of Pantanal and raised funds to finance the formation of the brigades. For training the volunteers appropriately, PrevFogo Ibama, the main federal structure in fire prevention and firefight stepped in. 

Training brigades then learn basic concepts about fires and legislation. The practical training imparts skills about organizing groups and maintaining security at the time of combat, while also teaching about integrated fire management, and using equipment and tools. Additionally, the fire brigades learn about the behavior of fire, fighting it in forests using controlled burning techniques, and first aid.

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Before the formation of the brigades, women were often the ones who gave the alert of the fire outbreak. If the focus of the fire was small, residents used water to control it. But in other cases, it was necessary to wait for the arrival of firefighters, which often took time. 

“The work of the brigades has been fundamental in reducing the fires. There are more than 150 volunteers who live in or around preserved areas,” Siqueira added. 

“Due to the nature of the women’s work which requires them to roam the island extensively, they are always attentive to any source of fire”, explains Siqueira. “The difference is that before they sought help. Now they no longer need to wait for help to arrive. They fight fire”.

But, the task is not without challenges for the volunteers. “It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done. It gets very hot near the flames. We need to protect ourselves with the clothes and use the technique in the right way, ” says Roseli Santos.  

“We suffered too much in 2020 [due to the wildfire]. I feel very happy to have learned to avoid more fires. I don’t have words to describe how I feel…It’s very exciting,” she adds.  

Adopting Fire Techniques and Technology

Other than the Baguari Fire Brigade, more such fire brigades have been formed. One such is the Alto Pantanal Brigade, formed in 2020 by NGO Homem Pantaneiro. The Institute has worked for more than twenty years in the management of protected areas in the Pantanal. 

Amongst the many regions that the NGO conserves is the Serra do Amolar region, a conservation area with 300 thousand hectares. The 2020 fire led to grave damage here too—it destroyed 90% of Serra do Amolar. 

The Amolar is a diverse but challenging landscape—it is the only stretch of the Pantanal which consists of mountains, while also being a natural wetland. This geography makes it possible to only reach the region by boat or plane, thereby making it difficult to have a quick fire mitigation response.

In addition to fighting the fire, the Alto Pantanal Brigade  also engages in educational actions with riverside residents and maintains roads. It  works to open firebreaks, which is a technique that strategically removes vegetation in strips to prevent fire from spreading, creating escape routes for animals and residents.

In a bid to go further into fire prevention, the NGO also implemented a smoke detection system. Operating in Serra de Amolar, this technology has made a big difference. 

Fires in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. 2020. Photo credit: Silas Ismael / WWF-Brazil.

This smoke detection system uses solar energy that powers five monitoring towers,  with video cameras and an algorithm developed especially for the region by the startup Um Grau e Meio. High-definition cameras that rotate 360 degrees monitor the area’s 500,000 hectares. “We have a control room which is managed by our employed staff. Here we can see exactly if it is even the focus of fire, as sometimes it could actually be a cloud, or dust. The hit rate is more than 90%,” says Angelo Rabelo, Homem Pantaneiro’s president.

“Before the technology, we used to spend 12 to 24 hours detecting a fire source. Now it just takes three minutes”, Rabelo adds.  Explaining the impact of the smoke detection system, Rabelo mentions that while the fire of 2020 caused more than 90% of the Serra do Amolar region to be burned, this year, the fire damaged less than 7%.

“We got funding for this technology system by a Brazilian company. We have also been receiving government support to go to this remote region whenever maintenance is needed to be done,” says Rabelo. 

When a focus is detected, it is possible to move the Brigade or trigger the firefighters. 

“We need the brigades, the technology, and the resources to do the logistics. A lot of strategic planning is needed to calculate the best solution to respond to fires here, because of the challenging geography,” Rabelo explains. 

In 2021, there was a 49.7% reduction in burned area in Pantanal. In total, 12.6% of the area occupied by the Biome caught fire. From January to July this year, there was a 19% reduction in burned areas at the biome.

Rabelo evaluates that all actions, together, are necessary to avoid fire. “The brigades formed throughout the Pantanal have been fundamental. And, with our experience, it became clear that technology is a great ally and needs to be used in fire prevention strategies,” he says.  

Marcela Maria Martins de Souza
Marcela is a journalist, based in Brazil, with special interest in the environment and climate change. Currently, she is a reporter and TV presenter at Rede Minas, and a Public Science Communication postgrad student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. For the past seven years, she’s been covering environmental issues, with a focus on mining impacts, and she’s produced dozens of reports about themes such as traditional and indigenous knowledge and conservation projects. She’s also the director of a short film, “Amazon Rainforest TV”, and a writer, author of the novel “O nome do Lobo” (The wolf’s name).