Woman firefighter on Brazil frontline after 2020 flames took her baby

Aerial view of the fire outside Corumba, the gateway to the Pantanal (Pablo PORCIUNCULA)
Aerial view of the fire outside Corumba, the gateway to the Pantanal (Pablo PORCIUNCULA)

Debora dos Santos Avila used to resent firefighters for the death of her five-month-old baby in 2020, when she says he succumbed to smoke inhalation from worst-ever flames in Brazil's Pantanal.

But this year, as the world's largest tropical wetlands sees new record infernos, the bereaved mother is on the frontline fighting back the flames in an area stricken by drought.

"At first I didn't like firefighters. I resented them for what happened to my son. I needed to blame someone," she said.

"But then, I went to see them to understand how they work, and now it has been two years since I became a volunteer firefighter."

Dos Santos Avila said her baby died from smoke inhalation, without giving further details, during a record-breaking year for fires which saw 30 percent of Brazil's Pantanal affected.

"Many children suffer from the smoke. And I want to do all I can to alleviate this problem," said the woman, who works as a cook for an NGO when she is not called up to fight fires.

This year, the fires have spread out of control even before the peak of the dry season.

"At this time last year, we were doing prevention in schools, we were not yet mobilized for direct combat" against the flames, said Dos Santos Avila.

In the first half of this year, satellites recorded more than 3,400 fires in the region, 33 percent more than in 2020.

Experts say that the blazes result from harsh drought linked to climate change and deliberate fires -- set to expand agricultural land -- burning out of control.

- 'We are all equal' -

Dos Santos Avila is the only woman among 45 volunteer firefighters in Corumba, a city considered the gateway to the Pantanal. She underwent six months of training for the role.

"My colleagues make no distinction. In the face of flames, we are all equal," she said.

The Pantanal, which extends into Bolivia and Paraguay, is home to millions of caimans, parrots, giant otters and the world's highest density of jaguars.

Seasonal flooding across plains, marshes, savannahs and forest areas during the rainy season is crucial to the biodiverse ecosystem.

Covered in protective gear, Dos Santos Avila uses a machete to slash through the bush toward the merciless heat of a raging inferno that stretches over seven kilometers (four miles).

When she nears the flames, she uses a leaf blower to disperse the decomposing organic matter that serves as kindling to the spreading fire.

Danger is ever-present. The wind could change the direction of the fire at any moment.

With the help of water bomber planes, the team brings the blaze under control. Then it is time to turn over the earth to ensure no embers remain, a long and grueling job.

On Thursday, around a hundred firefighters from elsewhere in Brazil are due to arrive to lend a hand, according to Marcio Yule of fire prevention program Prevfogo.

The state of Mato Grosso do Sul has declared a state of emergency and the federal government has also announced it will deploy soldiers to help fight the fires.