By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – At around 10PM on Saturday night a wildfire spread across Morro dos Cabritos in the Copacabana corner of the Lagoa neighborhood, its size and speed assisted by strong winds. The fire department responded before houses were seriously at risk and no injuries were reported, but the hill’s trees were almost entirely destroyed as the flames spread at alarming speed.
Firemen from eight neighborhoods were called to the scene and only had the fire under control from around 3AM, announcing that the cause of the blaze that brought emergency calls from worried residents of six different regions was the flame from a Chinese lantern-style balloon. As the flames spread rapidly downhill, it became clear that apartments on the Lagoa were under threat, and helicopters were brought in to help douse the fire.
Some 50,000 liters of water were scooped out of the lagoon during the operation to get the blaze under control, with the dryness of the fauna after a week of unbroken sunshine also contributing to the scale of the destruction. The hill is an area under environmental protection, and an investigation to find those responsible is now underway.
Meeting the press on Monday near the scene, Mayor Eduardo Paes praised the emergency teams for getting the four-hectare area under control rapidly and promised to help in the recovery of the vegetation, saying “We have already authorized the reforestation of the region… We will hire a company to have the area recovered as quickly as possible.”
Paes also called for citizens to denounce the use of such lanterns and balloons that, from time to time, cause just such problems in the city but have a traditional place in celebrations, particularly in the current season of Festas Juninas (June Festivals) and major events such as the World Cup. “People’s lives are put at risk, as are trees and even airplanes. It is illegal to fly these balloons and people need to recognize that,” he said, adding that at this time of year the dangers are greatly augmented by the lack of rain.
The homemade balloons are often as large in circumference as a coffee table, highly decorated and kept afloat by oil burners. Usually the oil burns out before it hits land, but this time it was blown directly into the hillside, although from where it was launched remains unclear.
Residents around the Lagoa complained of not being able to sleep as smoke filled the surrounding buildings, and throughout Sunday morning small fires and “hot spots” continued to break out, assisted by the continuing winds running up the hillside.
Meanwhile in northeastern Brazil, at least twenty people have died during flooding that has displaced up to 50,000 people from their homes. Alagoas has been the worst-hit state with 30,000 people left homeless, while Pernambuco and its capital Recife have also witnessed unusually high rain levels that have left several dead.