Tribes in Brazil Fight Wildfires with Indigenous Knowledge

The Indigenous people of Brazil have managed their fire-prone landscapes for millennia using controlled burns. Rainforests managed by Indigenous peoples have a lower presence of fire and lower fire temperatures.

An Indigenous firefighter with Prevfogo sets a controlled burn to reduce fuel loads. (Image courtesy of Prevfogo)

Now, more than 700 Indigenous firefighters who work for Brazil’s National Center for Wildfire Prevention and Suppression (Prevfogo) are starting to use smart maps and apps to share their know-ledge of the forest to protect it from destructive wildfires. Indigenous fire brigades record their traditional ecological knowledge via map-based apps.

“The true owners of the knowledge, with field experience about the way fire behaves, are the Indigenous people in those areas,” said Talita Oliveira Tarlei De Freitas, an environmental analyst at Prevfogo, which is part of the larger Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA).


An all-women fire brigade has been trained to strengthen the Indigenous firefighting effort in Brazil. (Image courtesy of Prevfogo)

Prevfogo’s fire brigade training includes the use of an app called the National Wildfire Information System (Sisfogo), which was built using GIS technology. Sisfogo makes it simple for firefighters to collect wildfire information and incident details, which are displayed on a dashboard for decision-makers.

Firefighters use Sisfogo on their phones and tablets to see the fuel load maps of green and dry vegetation and coordinate the suppression of unwanted fires. This information helps manage controlled burns during the wet season and contributes to a greater understanding of the land.

Reinforcing Indigenous Rights

Brazil is also taking measures to prevent illegal fires along the Amazon—those started by settlers who burn the forest to clear land for farming and grazing. When Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won reelection in 2022, he pledged increased protections and support for the rainforest and Indigenous stewards of the land. Since then, thousands of non-Indigenous people have been removed from the two native territories that had seen the greatest amount of deforestation. The removal of illegal settlers reduces environmental stress on the land Prevfogo manages and eliminates a persistent source of fires.

Prevfogo works within Indigenous territories called quilombos and land reform settlements in integrated fire management activities. [Quilombos are settlements dating from Brazilian colonial times that were organized by fugitive slaves.] Of the 99 fire brigades Prevfogo has trained and maintained since 2009, more than half are composed of Indigenous people and one is composed entirely of women.

Each tribe has a unique cultural connection to fire, using it in various ways for rituals, land management, and hunting. The Indigenous fire brigades spread their fire knowledge through the Sisfogo app so that all can learn what elders have passed down through generations.

“Indigenous firefighters work in their own territory, which is very important for us because they have a natural relationship of protection,” Freitas said.

Depleting Fuels Before the Dry Season

To reduce fuels, brigades conduct prescribed burns in May at the beginning of the driest season, which typically lasts through October. The areas considered most vulnerable to fire are carefully evaluated, and burning only occurs where authorized. For this work, the center’s GIS tools help with public awareness.

“We need to inform the community and gain approval,” Freitas said. “Maps and imagery help us show the risk and convince them that we’re there to partner and work with them. They may need to sacrifice a small piece of their land as part of a prescribed burn for the bigger picture of reduced wildfire risk in the future.”

For a short period that began in 2001, Brazil’s government banned controlled burning by tribes but soon reversed the policy. Researchers have learned that many of Brazil’s biomes depend on fire and controlled burns reduce fire intensity and damage. Controlled burns that spread slowly—called cold fires because they naturally die out in the early evening when temperatures decrease—give animals and insects time to flee. The flames don’t reach the treetops and are not intense enough to destroy mature trees or shrubs.

GIS maps visually communicate the brigade’s strategy for its controlled burns. “We use maps to explain where we plan to burn and to demonstrate how and why we will conduct the operation in a certain way,” said Luiz Pacheco Motta, an environmental analyst and developer at Prevfogo who is working on Sisfogo.


Drones have proved effective to gain a top-down view of conditions and the progress of wildfires. (Image courtesy of Prevfogo)

Stopping Destructive Fires

When faced with wildfire, tribes in the affected region share maps to communicate and take strategic actions. Within the Sisfogo app, they can adjust data capture forms and dashboards as needed. “They can share their thoughts, their feelings, their perceptions of the world using GIS tools and maps,” Freitas said.

The value of collecting and sharing tribal knowledge extends beyond the immediate needs of firefighters. Government ministries, agencies, and academics benefit from the data and shared awareness.

“One of Sisfogo’s biggest challenges is to adapt the traditional use of fire to climate change,” Motta said. “To this end, GIS technology with spatiotemporal data and Indigenous land-use records provides the right way to respond to this challenge.”

Prevfogo can now visualize and analyze wildfire data to see patterns, compare incidents in space and time, and monitor hot spots. The insights could provide answers about wildfire conditions and incidents, which can inform global efforts to reduce disasters.
“Everyone is watching Brazil for environmental issues, deforestation, and wildfires right now,” Freitas said. “It’s important for us to show the world what we’re doing, how we prevent wildfires, and how we manage them.”


Women firefighters pass along knowledge to young people, extending their important role as educators in their communities. (Image courtesy of Prevfogo)

Prevfogo’s monitoring and combat division (DMC), where Sisfogo developers work, relies on global GIS collaborators who share knowledge and techniques to better face the challenges of global warming. Motta reflected on the urgent need to help one another during a talk at the 2023 Esri User Conference, “We do not have another planet Earth; there is no second chance.”

About the authors

Anthony Schultz is director of Wildland Fire Solutions at Esri. His background in wildland fire management and operations began as a wildland firefighter and progressed to responsibility for planning, program direction, and coordination of Wyoming’s wildland fire program as the state's Fire Management Officer (FMO). During his tenure as Wyoming’s FMO, he chaired the Western State Fire Managers and was a Rocky Mountain Coordinating Group member. He also served as an FMO with the State of North Dakota. As a wildland firefighter, he worked for several federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

Adam Reedy is the National Government Business Manager for the Americas at Esri, covering Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America. He has more than 20 years of experience guiding US and international clients on the development and implementation of enterprise geospatial systems for defense, intelligence, public safety, and emergency management solutions. Reedy is a 1995 graduate of the US Air Force Academy with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Engineering and Political Science. He has a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. As a USAF officer and pilot, Captain Reedy flew C-21 Lear jets, providing operational airlift support for senior military and federal officials as well as flying time-sensitive medical evacuations out of Randolph AFB, Texas. He resides in the Northern KY/Greater Cincinnati area with his wife and four kids.