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Fires sweeping Brazil rainforests

Tuesday 24 March 1998 00:02 GMT

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Fires ate deeper into the rainforests of Brazil's northern Amazon yesterday in spite of attempts by the authorities to deploy more equipment and manpower to tackle the blazes.

At the weekend a hospital reported the first fatality from the fires: a three-month-old girl who died after her respiratory illness was aggravated by the smoke.

"The situation is extremely serious and it has all the elements to turn into a new Indonesia," Neudo Campos, state governor of Brazil's Roraima province, on the border with Venezuela, said yesterday.

Fires ravaged large areas of forest in Indonesia last year, casting smog over much of South-east Asia. New outbreaks have been reported this week.

The Brazilian forest fire, which is the worst in recent memory, began in January when subsistence farmers ignored government warnings not to use "slash and burn" tactics to clear their land and watched helplessly as the flames spread quickly over the savannahs. Amid one of the region's worst droughts, blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon, the fires are now eating into rainforests normally too humid to burn.

Governor Campos said 39,000 people in Roraima had been affected either directly or indirectly because of the fires which continued to spread through the region.

"The focal points of fire are increasing and the number of men are out there is insufficient," he said. "The federal government's structure for fighting fires of this magnitude needs to be more flexible."

Brazil launched a long-awaited aerial attack on the fires on Sunday, sending two Argentine helicopters armed with huge water buckets to the region of Apiau where fires burning through forest and pastures were threatening homes.

But rain is probably the only effective solution to the crisis, and although it was due to fall in scattered areas in the south of Roraima yesterday but would miss the areas affected by the fires, a forecaster at the National Institute of Meteorology said. More widespread showers will follow on Thursday, but they may still not be enough to put out the fires.

Some 400 men were combating the fires but the extent of the blazes meant they could not prevent flames from eating ever deeper into the Portugal- sized jungle reservation of the Yanomami Indians.

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