The air-conditioned coach stops in the sweltering heat of high noon. Five men with heavy boots, in orange overalls, their faces covered behind pieces of cloth, protective plastic glasses and hats, storm towards the bus. Two of the men, who look as athletic as exhausted and hungry, hold long machetes in their hands. Their accomplice, the only one whose face is not covered, is waiting in an old, red pick-up truck, the engine running.
Behind the lush green hills, columns of smoke rise. There must be seven or eight seats of fire, in the close vicinity alone. As I step off the bus, the heat (37 degrees Celsius, 99 degrees Fahrenheit) and the smell of fire and smoke hit me. Not the good smell of a barbecue, but the bad smell of danger, destruction and death.
The town of Lençois doesn’t look very busy, but the five men are. One of them talks to the bus driver only briefly and opens the cargo door. They take out a few batches of water, jump onto their pick-up truck and speed off.
In other countries, if a national park is burning, the government mobilizes the national guard, provides planes and helicopters and fire departments from other states help out. In Brazil, even after several weeks of forest fires, it’s up to the volunteers from the small town of Lençois in their 1950s Ford pick-up truck to battle the raging fires. Besides the machetes, I only saw one shovel and one pickax. That’s all these men have. Plus the water which someone sent them as a donation from Salvador, 425 km away.
The sunset looks eerie, as if the fire is closing in on the town.
As I walk back home, I see smoke on the opposite side of the town too.
This is how we go to bed in Lençois, not knowing how close the fires will come at night. But then, sleeping well in the face of danger is something we can learn from all the inactive government officials.
I will stay in Lençois for 3 more weeks, so you will receive regular updates, inside stories and analysis. Tomorrow, I will try to hike close to where the fires are to take a look myself. But the real mystery is of course who started these fires, because almost nobody I spoke to believes in a natural cause. There haven’t been any thunderstorms and there are just too many fires popping up everywhere.