NOVO SANTO ANTONIO, Brazil — No one could stop the fire. It had burned for 10 days already, across 25 miles, when the rancher made the desperate call to the only person he thought could still help.

“Let me ask a question,” Edimar Santos Abreu responded. “The fire — is it happening in the forest?”

“The forest!” the rancher said.

Abreu, 45, put down the phone. Little forest remained in this corner of the Amazon basin in Mato Grosso state. What was once a blanket of continuous green foliage is now a checkerboard of arid and dusty farmland.

One of the only things keeping the last shards of forest here from getting torched and bulldozed into cattle and soy farms is Abreu’s team of firefighters: the Alliance Brigade. Known locally as the “guerreiros de fogo” — the “fire warriors” — they spread across hundreds of miles each day to contain blazes lit by land grabbers trying to burn, claim and develop the forest.

Authorities say land grabbers set fires in the Araguaia State Park in the hopes of degrading it to such an extent that there's no choice but to develop it. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

The daily battle — between fire and nature, conservation and development — is intensifying across the Amazon. Since the inauguration of Brazil’s pro-development president, Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation has soared. Fires now rage across the Amazon. In August, officials counted nearly 31,000, a nine-year high. The number fell in September, but the year-to-date total remained up for 2019.

They’re burning in public parks. On private ranches. On government land. On Indian reservations. In so many places, and across such an immense sweep of forest, that stopping them all can seem impossible.

But perhaps here, in northeast Mato Grosso, the forest could still be defended. Where the brigade is active, the burn rate has plummeted. Some describe the team as a potential model for the rest of the Amazon.

The challenge, however, in a land this remote, with few people and little infrastructure, is obvious — reaching the fire in time.

Abreu drove hours down pockmarked dirt roads, past towns cloaked in red dirt, to discover an apocalyptic scene. Cows had died of smoke inhalation. An expanse of charred earth reached toward the horizon. The farmworkers had thrown nearly everything at the inferno, from water to heaps of dirt. Most of it had been defeated.

Abreu had to finish the job.

He peered into a quiet patch of trees.

“Do you hear that?” Abreu asked. “Fire.”

He pulled on his cap. He unsheathed his long knife. Then he hacked into the foliage and disappeared into the trees, in search of the fight.

Members of the Alliance Brigade, an elite team of firefighters in the Amazon basin, walk through the Araguaia State Park, tracking the smoke of a wild fire. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

A violent struggle for land fuels the fires

Mato Grosso means “thick bush,” and until recently the name fit. The last asphalt road ended long before this corner of the state. The only reasonable way in was by plane. And the humidity of the trees was a natural flame retardant: Fire dissolved at the forest’s edge, like magic.

This was the land that John Carter, the former U.S. Army paratrooper who founded the Alliance Brigade a decade ago, came to know when he moved here from Texas in 1996.

“An island in the forest,” was how he described his ranch then. Now, looking out at the Araguaia State Park, he could see that it was the forest that had become the island.

“This wind,” he said, feeling it pick up. “It’s going to burn today.”

“Uncontrollable,” Abreu agreed.

They boarded Carter’s aluminum boat and chugged out onto the River of the Dead. Carter, a compact man in a cowboy hat and boots, scanned the scorched coastline for plumes of smoke.

When he first piloted his single-engine down here, he had no idea why there were so many fires. But he would learn.

William Neff

There was big money in “flipping” the forest — burning it, then selling it as farmland — and squatters and speculators wanted in. A Brazilian law allowed the purchase of uninhabited public land here at deep discounts. Then agrarian reform efforts made private land a target for landless poor.

The result was a violent struggle involving ranchers, indigenous peoples and squatters in which the best way for settlers to claim forest, no matter the owner, was to burn it.

“There!” Carter said, pointing at rising smoke. “They’re lighting it everywhere!”

The boat sped toward the plume.

Fire so defines Carter’s life that it’s difficult to remember a time when it didn’t. In 1999, squatters started burning a neighbor’s forest. In 2008, they came for Carter’s land, torching the 50 percent he had preserved — more than 10,000 acres.

Enraged, and fearful of what he might do, he gave away nearly all of his guns. But the anger — that he couldn’t dispose of.

“I can’t even see the beauty anymore,” he said. “I just see rage. Because we know what the future holds.”

To Carter, the future: the entire Amazon transformed by an avalanche of development and deforestation. It was a scenario he once couldn’t envision. But he has seen it happen in Mato Grosso, on his land, and now again on this river.

Araguaia State Park, half the size of Rhode Island, doesn’t have a single patrol officer. Squatters are exploiting the void by lighting fires to destroy the forest so there’s no choice but to develop it.

Three fires now flared along the river. Smoke filled the sky. The boat hit the shore.

“Let’s see if we can catch them,” Carter said, charging into the forest.

Ranchers could be part of the solution

Kika Carter couldn’t get her husband to calm down.

The smoke had grown so thick they couldn’t see across the river. They could barely drive. Barely fly. Barely breathe.

She told him to do something about it. They had launched a partnership that used market incentives to encourage sustainable ranching, garnering international attention. Maybe they could do something about the fires, too.

“This frustration,” she recalled telling him. “You just need to get it done.”

He wrote a letter asking the Smokejumpers — the highly trained first responders who parachute into remote areas to fight wildfires — to train some locals here. To his surprise, they said they would do it.

The result, according to Douglas Morton, a NASA official and Amazon expert, was “the best-equipped and -trained” privately organized brigade in the basin. The eight initial members roved, fighting fires and championing a counterintuitive premise: Ranchers were less a cause of the fires than part of the solution. They could be trained, too.

On nearby ranches, fires plummeted. In the forest of Alto Xingu, fires fell 77 percent where they patrol. Smoke diminished around John Carter’s ranch, and local health officials registered a 25 percent drop in hospital visits for breathing problems.

“This could be a model,” said Britaldo Silveira Soares Filho, a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “When a firefighter is not someone you can go summon to go there and fight the fire, you have to train someone there.”

Or it will burn.

Carter and Abreu hurried into the forest, dodging thorned fronds. They spotted horse tracks and followed them. But what they found a mile into the forest wasn’t a squatter. It was a fire, burning low and hot.

They stared at it, wordless. They had called federal park authorities but were told the problem was the state’s. They had called state park authorities but were told the Araguaia didn’t have a patrol officer, let alone firefighters. They had called the police but were told an arrest could be made only if the arsonist was caught in the act.

“We don’t have the people or the knowledge to deal with this in the park,” said Mariano Neto, the local police chief.

The only thing left was to put it out themselves.

The cleared gap in foliage on the forest floor acts like a moat, making it more difficult for the fire to jump across. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

The Amazon is burning

Back at his house on Carter’s ranch, Abreu pulled on his khaki coat, slid on his boots and tied his long knife around his waist. He was furious. Not only at the arsonist but also at how the broader story of the fires was being told.

The international outrage to him was artifice, whipped up to delegitimize Bolsonaro. Every year the forest burned, and every year more of it was knocked down. Where was the anger in 2007, when far more fires burned than this year? Where was it in 2010, when Mato Grosso was positively flammable, hitting double the number of fires as this year?

To Abreu, this year is barely discernible from most. All that’s different is who’s in power.

That was why, when people mocked Bolsonaro for saying his critics had started the fires to make him look bad, Abreu didn’t join in. On the frontier, with its endless cycle of violence and retribution, it made sense. Bolsonaro, in his calls to develop the Amazon, had “assaulted with words” the environmentalists and indigenous people. Some of the fires, Abreu believed, were payback. Others were deforestation. Others were simply to watch a beautiful thing burn.

He grabbed his hat. He climbed back onto the boat, picked up two other firefighters, crossed the river and went into the forest. The men carried nothing but machetes, a few jugs of drinking water and a leaf blower. Up ahead, smoke was rising. The sound of popping and crackling was everywhere.

The fire was now sweeping in length, the height of its flames reaching 20 feet — and growing.

“Strategy,” Abreu said. “Lots of strategy.”

He had no chance of extinguishing it. The fire was too big; the firefighters too few. The only option was containment. He would build a fire break — a gap in vegetation around the edge of the blaze — to box it in and let it burn out on its own. But when he charged toward the numbing heat, the flames lashed unpredictably.

“Too much!” another firefighter yelled.

They retreated, fanning out across a half-mile front of fire. Abreu used his leaf blower to create the fire break. The others slashed at the brush with their machetes.

They battled until the sun was gone and the fire was no longer the hot orange of flame but the deep red of ember.

What had taken one person seconds to light had taken three men hours to quell.

They started for Carter’s ranch, exhausted, silent. They needed to rest. It wouldn’t be long before the next fire was lit.

Marina Lopez contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.