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Smoke Halts Amazon Forest Firefight

March 23, 1998

BOA VISTA, Brazil (AP) _ A smoky haze grounded helicopters Monday in the northern Amazon, leaving firefighters and soldiers to battle a 3-month-old forest fire without aerial support.

The lack of visibility forced the Brazilian air force to call off dispatching four Argentine firefighting helicopters to the hard-hit village of Apiau, 60 miles west of Boa Vista.

On Sunday, two helicopters dumped 132-gallon tanks full of water on the blaze in hard-to-reach jungle areas, achieving ``good results,″ the governor’s office said.

Still, hundreds of fires continue to burn in savanna and forest turned to tinder by a three-month drought. Scientists blame the unusually dry weather on El Nino, a warming of the waters in the Pacific that changes global weather patterns.

About 290 firefighters and army soldiers battled the blaze Monday at Apiau, which borders the 25 million acre reservation of the Yanomami Indians, the world’s largest Stone Age tribe.

The fire has reached 15 miles inside the reservation, home to some 9,000 Yanomamis. The burning has destroyed over 3 percent of Roraima state _ more than 1.5 million acres.

Venezuela has offered Brazil 100 firefighters, and officials from the two countries met Monday to discuss ways to control the fire in the Pacaraima savanna, near their common border.

Meanwhile, doctors say the smoke and low humidity have caused a sharp increase in respiratory ailments, especially among children.

At the Pai Hospital in Boa Vista, a city of 175,000, the number of children with respiratory illnesses has jumped from 160 a day to 260 since the burning began.

On Saturday, 3-month-old Thamires Tome died of whooping cough aggravated by the smoke, said Dr. Alberto Volpone, the hospital’s assistant administrator.

``The dryness and smoke together increase the number of respiratory diseases and make simple cases more serious,″ Volpone said.

Esmeralda Teixeira de Moraes, 38, raced to the hospital Monday with her 1-year-old son, who was gasping ``from lack of air.″

``It’s the smoke, the awful heat from the burning,″ she said. ``It’s not anything else.″

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