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The Amazon Fires Are So Big The Smoke Eclipsed the Sun Over Brazil's Largest City

amazon rainforest fire
On the photo from August 19, you can see the darkened sky in Sao Paulo. Residents of this metropolis of millions recently reported black rain. Studies by two universities confirmed that the rainwater contains fire residues, as reported by the news portal G1. | Andre Lucas/picture alliance via Getty Images
On the photo from August 19, you can see the darkened sky in Sao Paulo. Residents of this metropolis of millions recently reported black rain. Studies by two universities confirmed that the rainwater contains fire residues, as reported by the news portal G1. | Andre Lucas/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Amazon rainforest is burning at a rate unseen since scientists started tracking fires in the region in 2013. 

This year, scientists have recorded more than 74,843 fires in Brazil, a figure on pace to more than double 2018's total of 40,000. It's an 83% increase in wildfires over the same timeframe last year, according to Brazil's space research center, the INPE. It has become so extreme that smoke blotted out the sun over Sao Paulo, the nation's largest city. 

Around 3pm local time on Monday, the sky started to turn. The sudden darkness was caused by "the combination of wildfire smoke, dense rain clouds, and a cold front," per Accuweather. The smoke, some of which came from more than 2,000 miles away, is the result of more than 9,000 forest fires in the nation that have started since last Thursday. Many in the city began sharing videos on social media.

All told, the fires have created a layer of smoke that experts estimate to cover about 1.2 million square miles. 

The dry season around the Amazon runs from July through October. It's a time when forest fires can start from natural causes, but it's also a time when intentional fires are set to clear forest for commercial use. Argentine Santiago Gasso, a NASA researcher, told Brazil's UOL (via Google Translate), "Fires always happen at this time of year. But the smoke corridor does not form every year for reasons that include the number of fires and their intensity, the type of fuel, soil moisture, and weather issues."

Alberto Setzer, an INPE researcher, told Reuters that the dry season is regularly blamed for these fires, but that's not the whole picture. "The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire," he said, "but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident."

President Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed concerns over the fires. He also criticized INPE data when it said there was an alarming rise in deforestation in the Amazon. The organization said that in July that deforestation had increased by almost 300% compared to the same time last year. Bolsonaro accused the INPE of making up lies and fired its chief. "I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made up numbers. If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you," he told reporters. The president had previously installed climate change-denier Ricardo Salles to lead the government's Ministry of the Environment.

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.