Scientists fear deforestation, fires and Covid-19 could create a 'perfect storm' in the Amazon

Bloomberg Best of the Year 2019: Smoke rises as a fires burn in the Amazon rainforest in this aerial photograph taken above the Candeias do Jamari region of Porto Velho, Rondonia state, Brazil, on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Photographer: Leonardo Carrato/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(CNN)New data shows that fires in the Brazilian Amazon are on track to be just as bad as last year, if not worse, with an estimated 150,000 hectares of land deforested so far in 2020 at risk.

The Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), an initiative of the group Amazon Conservation, has used an archive of satellite data to track deforestation across the Brazilian Amazon and found that most of last year's fires occurred on recently deforested land, rather than in primary forest. Deforested land is often intentionally burned to clear it for farming and cattle ranching.
So far this year, MAAP has detected several large areas in the state of Mato Grosso that have been recently deforested, and could be the sites of fires later this year.
    "Fire season doesn't start out of nowhere in August -- it started a year ago with deforestation," said Matt Finer, senior research specialist and the director of MAAP. He says their research suggests this year's fires will be "as bad if not worse" than last year's. "We need the intensity of the rage and concern that people had back in August, we need that now to ratchet up the urgency of the situation."
      New satellite data analyzed by Amazon Conservation shows the extent of deforestation so far in 2020.
      Finer and his team used a new method combining data from heat-tracking satellites with data monitoring levels of particles in the atmosphere to give a more accurate picture of where forest fires occur. They have developed an app to track the fires in real-time and hope it will be of use to firefighters on the ground to focus resources over such vast areas.
      Satellite data from NASA indicates this year could be another dry year for the forest, increasing the risk of fires spreading from deforested land into primary forest.
      The first quarter of 2020 has seen a sharp increase in deforestation, estimated by MAAP to be around 150,000 hectares so far this year.
      The increase in deforestation, combined with dry weather conditions and the challenges posed by Covid-19 have all converged to create a "perfect storm" for fires this summer, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

        As the Amazon burns, humans are to blame

        Natural forest fires in tropical forests such as the Amazon are extremely rare due to high levels of humidity. That means humans are responsible for most of the recent destruction.
        "All the fires we have seen in the Amazon have been set [intentionally]. Unlike some other forest systems that are dependent on fires, such as in California, Florida or Australia, the Amazon doesn't burn naturally," said Ane Alencar, IPAM's director of science in a press conference on Wednesday run by Columbia University's Earth Institute.
        Last year's devastating fire season drew global attention to the plight of the Amazon and President Jair Bolsonaro's controversial dismantling of many of the state protections for the rainforest and indigenous lands. Under intense domestic and international pressure, the Brazilian Army was sent last year and again this year to protect the forest.
        The move has had some success, Alencar said, but has not succeeded in combating the root cause -- deforestation.
        According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE