Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio Times readers in Zona Sul this weekend will have seen, or at least sniffed, the results of a seemingly unquenchable passion—loosing decorative balloons (“balões”) in the weeks surrounding St John’s Day, June 24th. These artfully decorated and constructed hot air balloons, reaching four to five meters in height, float on the breeze for kilometers over the town, lighting up the night sky with bright colors, drawing oohs! and aahs! from spectators, until they fall to earth.
And that’s the problem.
For sometimes, when they fall, the fire in the bottom basket is not completely out, and when balloons crash land in wooded or grassy areas and spill blazing embers and hot ashes over tinder-dry terrain, they cause fires.
Last Saturday night, a balloon fell on the Morro dos Cabritos, separating Copacabana from Lagoa.
Fortunately, it fell on the uninhabited part of the hill, away from the favela, well above the upper-middle-class high-rise apartments lower down. Again fortunately, the top bit of the hill is largely rocky, with sparse vegetation, so the blaze, visible across much of Zona Sul, did not burn any houses or people. And, more fortunate still, the Lagoa is conveniently nearby, so helicopters from the Rio fire department could drop huge buckets into quiet waters, lift off and hasten back unimpeded to drop 55,000 liters of liquid relief for frightened residents.
The Rio branch of the Forest Patrol has seized 56 balloons and arrested thirteen people for making them since April. It’s illegal to set forest fires, and it’s illegal to make and then loose into the air contraptions that, when they land, will set forest fires. So, asks Smokey the Bear, why do people do this?
“It’s tradition!” “It’s culture!” “It’s art!” they cry. They almost have a point. The St John’s Day festival of bonfires and fiery balloons is traditional in Europe, particularly in northern Portugal. It’s been a cultural tradition of people in Brazil’s Northeast for decades. And lots of the balloons, we must admit, are beautifully crafted.
The Curmudgeon knows this because he has seen one. It fell, ironically, in a forest outside a training center operated by the Rio de Janeiro State Police. Fortunately, it had no harmful effects, save arousing the ire of several policemen, whose job was to pull the wreckage out of several tall trees in an area without any vehicular access.
In closing, Smokey says, “Tradition, Culture and Art be damned!” Balloons are rightly banned, and those who loose them should be arrested. Brazil is not Portugal and Rio is not the Northeast, where winters are rainy and fallen balloons do not light fires. Artful the contraptions may be, but painting designs on bombs does not make them art; painting designs on potential firebombs does not make them art either.
The Curmudgeon, alias Smokey the Bear, admits he has an axe to grind. Forest fires on nearby hillsides are terrifying, they cause you to grab your family, your documents and your dogs and scram, hoping your home will be there on the morrow. The Curmudgeon went though this in São Conrado over 20 years ago and knows exactly how frightened people in Zona Sul were, Saturday night last.