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TITLE:    Brazil Battling to Control Amazon Fire
SITE:     Apiau, Brazil
DATE:     March 21, 1998

Roberto da Silva stood defiantly in his doorway, watching as firemen and soldiers evacuated his neighbors. No forest fire would scare him from his cabin. Then firey bits of bark landed on his palm tree, and with a whoosh exploded in flames.

"I think I'll head into town," he said quietly.

Like da Silva, few people living here realize that this remote Amazon ooutpost is at the front lines of a battle to save the rain forest from the worst fire in the region's history.

"This is not a classic forest fire," said Capt. Wanius Amorim, who trained in the United States, Canada and Spain. "These are hundreds of little fires that got out of control. We have no idea how many hot spots there are."

On Friday, firefighters armed with swatters and chainsaws moved into Apiau. But many think the understaffed and ill-equipped tean is arriving too late, with too little.

"The firemen should have been here two months ago and we wouldn't have to go through all this," said Endalva da silvam waiting in a snaking line at a governement emergency relief office in the center of town.

Only 1/25th of an inch of rain has fallen all year. The extreme dryness sent the brush-clearing fires set by farmers and ranchers roaring out of control. More than 3% of the state - 1.5 million acres - has been consumed by fire. Most of it was savanna and grasslands, but the flames have also reached the forest home of the Yanomami Indians, the world's largest Stone Age tribe.

Already corridors of fire have eaten 15 miles into the 25 million acre reservation at some points. At least three malocas, or grass huts, have burned down. At other points, firefighters in orange jumpsuits and soldiers in camouflage fatigues battled desperately to keep the fire from jumping across a dusty road that separates the reservation from the town of Apiau, located in Brazil's northermost Roraima state.

"The road is a natural barrier but the winds have shifted," said army Capt. Luiz Delage. "If it gets into the jungle and the Yanomami area, it will be even harder to control."

Some firefighters used "flappers" - resembling shovel-sized fly swatters - to beat the flames out. Other sprayed water on burning logs from 20 quart, pump-action backpacks. Bulldozers and men with chainsaws cleared brush. The firefighting operation is the largest ever in Brazil, with Argentina and Venezuela sending helicopters and workers. The force is expected to reach 960 by the weekend.

But the lack of coordination hinders their efforts. Deluge said his men can't see the fire's progress from the ground, and helicopters can't guide them because they aren't equipped with radios. Dropping water from helicopters, a common technique in the Northern Hemisphere, is practically useless here, where the dense canopy keeps the water from reaching the ground.

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The Rainforest News