Thousands of new wildfires burn across the Amazon

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The Amazon rainforest continues to burn. (Photo: CBS)

(CBS) — Smoke thick enough to nearly shield the sun is blanketing parts of the Amazon as flames ravage the forest beneath. Nearly 10,000 new fires have been reported in a little over a week.

Many are believed to be intentionally set by farmers clearing land, as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental laws to promote economic expansion in the rainforest.

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“This year we had more devastation, more deforestation so the livestock can come,” said Jarlene Gomes, a researcher who promotes sustainable farming. Referring to the downed trees, she said, “So they have to take this mass and do something with that. And the easiest way is to burn it.”

The Associated Press reports that Brazil’s federal police agency is investigating reports that farmers in the state of Para had called for “a day of fire” earlier this month. More than 77,000 fires in the Amazon have been recorded so far this year, according to the country’s satellite monitoring agency — 10,000 more in a little over a week.

Reporting from Rio Branco, Brazil, CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez witnessed a spot fire erupt just a few minutes earlier on the side of the road. The flames quickly spread, devouring shrubbery and trees.

Bojorquez also visited a field where a fire had erupted yesterday. The flames quickly spread; within a half-hour, there was nothing left.

On Friday, President Bolsonaro announced he is sending 44,000 army troops to help battle the flames, but only after facing protests from the public and pressure from critics of his policies.

Bojorquez asked Gomes, “Do you think we’re at the tipping point where the Amazon may not be able to recover?”

“We think that the risk is too big,” Gomes replied. “I mean, it’s too great to take on. Because when fire hits the forest, we have no way to control it.”

What’s at stake affects everyone: the Amazon produces a substantial amount of the world’s oxygen. It also stores carbon, yet the amount of carbon that the rainforest is taking from the atmosphere has been lessened in recent years by deforestation. Scientists are afraid that that balance could be changing, speeding up climate change.

At the G-7 summit, leaders of member countries were nearing an agreement on how to help Brazil battle the fires and repair the damage.

“Of course (this is) Brazilian territory, but we have a question here of the rainforests that is really a global question,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “The lung of our whole Earth is affected, and so we must find common solutions.”

There is some help from the U.S., including a 747 supertanker, now in Bolivia, which can hold up to roughly 19,000 gallons of water per trip.

Back in Brazil, the fires are also threatening homes. Desperation drove one family to use a pail of water as they waited for a pump to start pushing water through a hose — trying their best just to keep the fire away from the houses.

Their efforts only highlight how unstoppable the flames can be.