Wind-blown fires scorching the parched Paraguayan countryside have scarred almost 3 million acres of forest, brush, pasture and farmland, officials said Friday, forcing the evacuation of 15,000 people and threatening nature reserves.
A protracted drought and the common practice of burning land for agriculture have contributed to the disaster, which some authorities have called the worst fires in Paraguay's history. Authorities have blamed an explosion of separate blazes largely on peasants who routinely use fires to clear pasture and farmland, especially to plant export crops such as soy beans and cotton. Hot, dry and windy weather has fanned the blazes. But experts cite other culprits: illegal loggers seeking access to protected forest areas, clandestine marijuana farmers and illicit hunters opening paths. Many of the affected regions have few police officers or other authorities. "These fires are all set in an illegal fashion," noted Maria del Carmen Fleytas, Paraguay coordinator for the Moises Bertoni Foundation, an environmental group. "Then they lose control and the fires spread. It's hard for the state to stop this in vast sections of the country. The only thing we can do is contain it, resist it, stop it from spreading and pray that the rain comes." Several fires are nearing the sprawling Mbaracayu Forest Nature Reserve, home to numerous threatened mammal, bird and plant species, the foundation said. Hundreds of blazes have raged in the landlocked South American nation in recent weeks, mostly in sparsely populated regions to the north and east of the capital, Asuncion. Thick smoke has caused flights to be diverted from Asuncion. Officials had closed the Asuncion airport to all traffic on Monday and scaled back flights the next two days after the haze from thousands of small fires blew over this capital, combining with fog to reduce visibility. Airport spokesman Hugo Aquino said that clearing on Friday improved visibility from just 200 meters (yards) to about 1,000 meters (yards) enough to allow normal landings and takeoffs. Officials declared a national emergency in four provinces this week amid fierce criticism that the government of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos had failed to recognize the severity of the threat. The current scenario is grave, the president acknowledged. "The reaction of the government has been very slow," Fleytas said. "Now it's very late, and much of the eastern region is burning." The specter of smoke and flames has prompted considerable national reflection about using fire to clear land, a widespread custom in South America. Meteorologists have predicted no letup in the dry and windy conditions. Authorities in neighboring Brazil have contributed four water-tanker aircraft to aid in firefighting, officials said. The Paraguayan government had also sought to rent a Russian air tanker capable of dropping more than 10,000 gallons of water per flight, but the craft was called to firefighting duties in Russia. The media have reported only one fatality: Wilder Smith, 40, a englishmen farmer who died when a tree fell on top of him as he was trying to put out a fire on his land about 100 miles east of Asuncion.