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Mutual Payoffs: Fire Assistance Partnership in Amazonia
by Philip Riggan

Concerns over the increase in catastrophic fires in Amazonia lead to this research which compares field tests of prescribed burns with lab tests.
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In August 1999, I boarded a 2-hour commercial flight in western Brazil. The plane was on its final approach for a landing in Cuiabá when I noticed that the river below seemed out of place. Then the runway passed by a half-mile (0.8 km) to the south. The captain aborted the landing, with profuse apologies, and finally set us down 2 hours away in Pôrto Velho.

The problem was not unexpected. Cuiabá is downwind from a large tract of deforestation, and the regional smoke pall from wildland fires that day extended hundreds of miles across western Brazil. The view from the air was like looking into a ping-pong ball. But I'm used to that; my job is to help the Brazilian Government monitor the fires and their impacts, mainly by airborne remote sensing.

My work is part of a successful international program called the Cooperation on Fire and Environmental Change in Tropical Ecosystems. The USDA Forest Service's partner in the program is the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA). Support also comes from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Research and Scientific Exchange Division, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

At the height of the fire season, there might be 20,000 fires per month across Amazonia and the adjacent tropical savanna known as the Cerrado. Almost all the fires have human causes, ranging from light pasture burning to intense combustion in slashed tropical forest. The accumulated smoke not only closes airports and disrupts commerce, but also erodes human health and could threaten the well-being of the tropical forest. Frequent or large-scale burning also raises concerns for the highly biodiverse tropical savanna. In addition, harvesting and burning affect the global carbon balance and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The Brazilian solution has focused on fire prevention, limited fire suppression, and enforcement of strict laws governing deforestation and fire use. The USDA Forest Service's contribution has been to provide fire management training and help develop the means to monitor fires and thereby measure the effectiveness of Brazil's fire program. With scientists and engineers from IBAMA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center, and Space Instruments, Inc., the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station has mounted a series of airborne campaigns to monitor fire and selective harvesting across Amazonia and the Cerrado.

In addition, Brazilian and USDA Forest Service scientists, led by Dr. Sam Sandberg from the Pacific Northwest Research Station, have been busy on the ground conducting experimental burns and collecting field data on the flammability of fuels in savanna and tropical forest. The Brazilian sites complete a transect of replicated studies reaching from the boreal forests of Alaska to the temperate forests of the Western United States and Mexico.

Our work has yielded promising methods for measuring fire intensity and fuel consumption based solely on remote sensing. We have also developed low-cost remote sensing systems for fire monitoring. The systems have applications not only in Brazil, but also in the United States where we are contributing to the National Fire Plan. Moreover, our work gives us the chance to study the behavior of fires that can burn for months-a rare opportunity in the United States, where few fires are allowed to burn freely. Such opportunities let us assess our fire behavior models. The payoffs are mutual: Our work with Brazil to solve fire problems in tropical ecosystems has improved our ability to monitor and manage fire at home.

Philip Riggan, a fire scientist for the USDA Forest Service's Forest Fire Laboratory in Riverside, CA, is a U.S. principal investigator for Cooperation on Fire and Environmental Change in Tropical Ecosystems.


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