Amazon rainforest fires: Everything we know and how you can help

Homes of indigenous tribes are being destroyed as fires continue to rage.

Shelby Brown Editor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
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Shelby Brown
9 min read

Fires have been raging in Brazil for the past month. 

Carl De Souza / AFP/Getty Images

The Amazon rainforest has been on fire for the past month, and Brazil has declared a state of emergency in the region. The fires are destroying the homes of indigenous tribes and threatening millions of animal species. One tribal chief described the halting response of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, regarding the fires, along with his support for deforestation, as a form of genocide CBS News reported Thursday

The number of fires in Brazil this year is the highest on record since 2013 and is up by 85% from last year alone, CNN reported. So far this year, more than 80,000 fires in the country have been detected by Brazil's space research center, INPE. 

There are so many fires burning right now, that smoke is visible from space. European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano captured images of smoke from the International Space Station on Aug. 27. Parmitano said the haze is so widespread, it resembles clouds in some of the photos.

Brazil fire

Satellite images of Rondonia earlier this month. 

Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies

Attention to the fires surged worldwide in mid-August when social media users rallied around several trending hashtags. People around the globe also took to the streets in protest, demanding action to stop the fires. Eventually, foreign leaders began to speak out on social media and develop a plan to help put out the fires. 

Here's everything we know about the ongoing fires in the Amazon and multiple ways you can help. 

What caused the fires?

While the Amazon rainforest is typically wet and humid, July and August -- the onset of the dry season -- are the region's driest months, with "activity" typically peaking by early September and stopping by mid-November, according to NASA

Fire is often used to clear out the land for farming or ranching. For that reason, the vast majority of the fires can be attributed to humans, Christian Poirier, program director of the nonprofit Amazon Watch, told CNN.

Without providing evidence, Bolsonaro suggested the fires were set by nongovernmental organizations in retaliation to funding cuts. He later said he never accused them, according to the BBC

What's the connection to climate change?

In a release on Aug. 22, Greenpeace said forest fires and climate change operate in a vicious circle. As the number of fires increase, greenhouse gas emissions do too. This makes the planet's overall temperature rise, the organization said. As the temperature increases, extreme weather events like major droughts happen more often. 

"In addition to increasing emissions, deforestation contributes directly to a change in rainfall patterns in the affected region, extending the length of the dry season, further affecting forests, biodiversity, agriculture and human health," Greenpeace said in the release. 

On Aug. 23, NASA released an AIRS Map showing the carbon monoxide associated with the fires in Brazil between Aug. 8 and Aug. 22. The animated map shows a carbon monoxide plume bloom in the northwest Amazon region, move south and east, and then toward San Paolo. 

What areas are affected?

The fires have spread to Bolivia and Paraguay, according to a report from Telesur on Aug. 28. The smoke can be felt in Uruguay and Argentina. Previously, satellite images showed fires in the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Rondonia, Para and Mato Grosso. The state of Amazonas is most affected, according to Euronews. 

Effects of damage to the Amazon go far beyond Brazil and its neighbors. The area's rainforest generates more than 20% of the world's oxygen and is home to 10% of the world's known biodiversity. The Amazon is referred to as the "lungs of the planet" and plays a major role in regulating the climate. The world would drastically change if the rainforest were to disappear, with impacts on everything from farms to drinking water.

Watch this: On the ground and in the cloud, the fight to save the Amazon

How many fires are burning?

In a 48-hour period, leading up to Aug. 29, there were more than 2,500 active fires in the Brazilian rainforest, the BBC reported Friday.

The smoke from the fires is visible from space. The European Union Earth Observation Program's Sentinel satellites captured images of "significant amounts of smoke" over Amazonas, Rondonia and other areas. NASA has been monitoring the fires. Over the past week, satellites from the EU and NASA have been tweeting images of the smoke on social media. Satellites have also kept tabs on the uptick in fires over this year, according to NASA. 

On Aug. 20, Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, tweeted data showing smoke from the fires covering about half of Brazil. Later in the week, the BBC tweeted a map showing similar data. 

The skies blackened over San Paulo, Brazil, for an hour Aug. 19 after a cold front caused winds to shift and carry smoke from about 1,700 miles away. On Friday, Telesur TV reported that smoke from the fires could be seen in Argentina

Have the fires been put out?

The fires are still active. On Saturday, Amnesty International captured a photo of the burned forests in the Mato Grosso state. Bolsonaro was mobilizing the Brazilian army to combat the flames, Euronews reported.

The patchy rain predicted through Sept. 10 is expected to bring minor relief but won't help to extinguish the fire, Reuters reported Aug. 27. The rain that's forecast for the next two weeks is reportedly set to fall in the areas that need it the least. 

While Bolsonaro faces criticism, US President Donald Trump tweeted his support on Aug. 27. Bolsonaro responded and said Brazil is fighting the wildfires with "great success." Last week, Trump said the US stood ready to assist fighting the fires.

Bolivia President Evo Morales contracted a Boeing 747 "Supertanker" last week to help extinguish the fires, Telesur reported. The Supertanker is capable of flying with 115,000 liters (over 30,000 gallons).

Was any action taken at the G7 Summit?

Bolsonaro rejected a $20 million aid package from the G7 countries that would go toward extinguishing the flames devastating the rainforest. His chief of staff reportedly said French President Emmanuel Macron should take care of "his home and his colonies," according to the Guardian. Bolsonaro reportedly said Brazil would only consider the international aid if Macron retracted comments that he found offensive about his country's indigenous protection policies.

Bolsonaro's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed his country will continue to support the efforts to save the Amazon. He said Canada is offering to send $15 million and "water bombers" to help fight the fires, the CBC reported Aug. 26.

In late August, the G7 Summit -- an annual meeting of the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US -- agreed on the aid package, according to The Hill on Aug. 26. Brazil's president originally had accepted the aid and tweeted that Brazil is committed to environmental protection.

What else are politicians doing to help?

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro expressed concern about the fires devastating Brazil and Bolivia and offered aid to help extinguish them. The Venezuelan Chancellery also expressed solidarity with the indigenous communities in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru.

"Venezuela expresses its deep concern about the gigantic and terrible fires that devastate the Amazon region in the territory of several South American countries, with very serious impacts on the population, ecosystems and biological diversity of the area," Venezuela's Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs said in a statement to Brasil247 on Friday

The government of Venezuela also proposed a meeting of foreign ministers of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization on Friday, posting a letter from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.

Finland's Prime Minister, Antti Rinne, also released a statement saying that the fires in Brazil were "extremely serious" and that he had contacted the European Commission. 

"Brazilian rainforests are vital for the world's climate. I am truly worried about the attitude Brazil seems to have adopted right now regarding its own forests. Brazil should do all it takes to end the fires that are a danger to our whole civilization," Rinne said in the statement. 

In addition, UK Member of Parliament Rebecca Long-Bailey drafted a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, asking Johnson to tell Bolsonaro that the destruction of the Amazon must stop.

Bolsonaro has faced criticism. People are accusing him of lack of action and of encouraging logging and farming in the Amazon. In early July, an anonymous senior Brazilian official told the BBC that Bolsonaro encouraged deforestation. Ricardo Galvão, the director of the INPE, was fired Aug. 2 after defending data that showed deforestation was 88% higher in June than it was a year ago, CNN reported. 

How did the public respond? 

Apple 's  Tim Cook appears to be the first tech CEO to respond with an offer of aid. Cook tweeted that Apple would be donating to help, but he didn't specify an amount.  

#ActForTheAmazon began trending on Twitter and protests began last week. In Zurich, activists from the Klimastreik Ecological Movement and Brazilians assembled outside of the Brazilian Consulate on Aug. 23. In Dublin, the Extinction Rebellion Collective occupied the Brazilian Embassy. Twitter users captured images of a protest in Barcelona as well. Demonstrations have also taken place in Paris, London, Madrid and Copenhagen, Denmark.

Protest Against Amazon Rainforest Fires By Extinction Rebellion

Members of an indigenous tribe from the Amazon sing during a protest organized by Extinction Rebellion at the Brazilian Embassy in London.

Mike Kemp/Getty Images

The hashtags #PrayforAmazonas and #AmazonRainforest were trending earlier last week. Twitter users criticized the media for giving more attention to the fire at Notre Dame and other news than to the rainforest fires. Social media users also called out billionaires for lack of donations. 

"The Club calls on international lenders and institutions to reconsider their investments in Brazil after President Jair Bolsonaro's reckless exploitation and destruction of a critical resource for the future of humanity," Javier Sierra, the Sierra Club's associate director of communications for Latino media, said in an email. 

Sierra pointed out that both Norway and Germany have already said they would cease to provide funds for the Amazon's preservation until Bolsonaro reverses course. 

"Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged in doing so by the Bolsonaro government's actions and policies. Since taking office, the current government has been systematically dismantling Brazil's environmental policy," Danicley Aguiar of Greenpeace Brazil said in a release Aug. 22.

The World Wildlife Fund's European policy office released a statement the same day. The organization called on Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname to protect the amazon, fight deforestation and reduce the causes of the fire. The WWF also addressed the EU and its Member States to take action as well.

In addition, actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio added a donation link to Amazon Watch on his Instagram profile and posted about the fires. Celebrities like Jameela Jamil, Jaden Smith and John Cusack have also taken to social media to speak out about the fiery devastation. 

How can you help?

Here are some ways you can aid in protecting the rainforest:

  • Donate to Rainforest Action Network to protect an acre of the Amazonian rainforest.
  • Donate to the Rainforest Trust to help buy land in the rainforest. Since 1988, the organization has saved over 23 million acres. 
  • Reduce your paper and wood consumption. Double-check with Rainforest Alliance that what you're buying is considered rainforest-safe. You can also purchase rainforest-safe products from the alliance's site. 
  • Reduce your beef intake. Beef found in processed products and fast-food burgers is often linked to deforestation.
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature (known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US and Canada) works to protect the species in the Amazon and around the world. 
  • Ecosia.org is a search engine that plants a tree for every 45 searches you run.  
  • Explore Change.org petitions. A lawyer in Rio Branco has accumulated over 3 million signatures to mobilize an investigation into the Amazonian fires
  • Donate to Amazon Watch, an organization that protects the rainforest, defends Indigenous rights and works to address climate change. 
  • Donate to the Amazon Conservation Team, which works to fight climate change, protect the Amazon and empower Indigenous peoples. 
  • Amazon Conservation accepts donations and lists exactly what your money goes toward. You can help plant trees, sponsor education, protect habitats, buy a solar panel, preserve Indigenous lands and more. 
  • Contact your elected officials and make your voice heard
  • Donate to One Tree Planted, which works to stop deforestation around the world and in the Amazon rainforest. One Tree Planted will keep you updated on the Peru Project and the impact your trees are having on the community. 
  • Sign Greenpeace's petition telling the Brazilian government to save the Amazon rainforest and protect the lands of indigenous and traditional communities. 

Editors' note: CNET is owned by CBS.

This story was originally published Aug. 21, 2019. It is updated regularly to make note of new developments.

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