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Strong rains fall on fire-ravaged Amazon state

forest fire
Firefighters work to contain a forest fire
video icon Quicktime Video
  • 2.6M/30 sec./240x180
  • 1.1M/30 sec./160x120
  • March 31, 1998
    Web posted at: 6:46 p.m. EST (2346 GMT)

    BRASILIA, Brazil (CNN) -- The first strong rains in six months fell Tuesday on the remote Amazon state of Roraima, kindling hopes that wildfires that have raged out of control for three months would soon end.

    The rains fell on dried forests one day after two Caiapo Indian shamans were flown to the Yanomami reservation to perform a special ritual they believed would bring rain.

    "If it's a coincidence or not, I don't know, but it certainly seemed to have done the trick," said Alan Suassuna, press spokesman for the Federal Indian Bureau in Boa Vista, the Roraima state capital located 1,550 miles northwest of Brasilia.

    The ritual performed Monday night involved dancing, praying and the gathering of leaves, Suassuna said. Heavy rains started at about 9:30 a.m. and lasted about four hours, he said.

    Suassuna estimated the rains quenched 80 percent to 90 percent of the fires but said an accurate evaluation will not be possible until Wednesday, when the army has flown over the area.

    Newly available satellite photos show that about 13,200 square miles -- about 15 percent of the state -- have been devastated by the fires, which were set by subsistence farmers.

    The flames spread to the reservation of the Yanomami, one of the last remaining Stone Age tribes, and to the reservations of several other tribes. Indian reservations cover about 55 percent of Roraima state.

    A U.N. team of disaster experts was trying Tuesday to gauge how far the fires had penetrated the rain forest, which is normally too humid to burn but which has been hit by months of drought.

    shamans celebrate
    Shamans of the Caiapo Indian tribe celebrate the coming of the rain in the town of Caracarai

    The drought -- blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon and strong winds -- has made the fires the worst on record, officials say.

    Carlos Pereira Monteiro, chief of the U.N. contingent, called the fires "an environmental disaster without precedent on this planet."

    About 1,500 firefighters -- some of them from Argentina and Venezuela -- and several water-carrying helicopters have been aiding the efforts to fight the fires scorching the Amazon jungle.

    On Monday, a congressional commission flew over the devastated areas and announced it was investigating who was responsible for the delay in mounting the firefighting effort, which only began in earnest more than two months after Gov. Neudo Campos declared a state of emergency.

    "It's sad to know that only after the international community called attention to the problem ... the government took measures," said Federal Deputy Jose Sarney Filho, a member of the congressional commission.

    Reuters contributed to this report.


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