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Chasing Fire in the Amazon

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Earlier this week, NPR's Christopher Joyce reported on experimental fires that scientists set in Brazil. They were trying to understand how these fires spread; how they contribute to global warming.

Here's his Reporter's Notebook, and what it's like to chase a fire through a tropical forest.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It's the first time I have put on snake guards to cover a story. They slide over your foot and cover you from shoe top to knee. Lots of rattle snakes, one scientist says. I wonder whether knee-high is high enough.

A team of Americans and Brazilians organized by the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts was going to set fire to a patch of Amazonian forest. They admit they are fire lovers, but they're doing this in the name of science, and they are a little crazy, too.

A young Brazilian walks with a tank of fuel strapped to his back and a fire-spitting wand connected to it. He drags the wand in the leaf litter alongside a cleared path and the flames crackle to life. The fire creeps across the forest floor. The flames climb vines and turn some trees into torches. The heat makes you gasp for breath.

At night, the forest glows with the ribbons of orange fire. The scientists plunge through the brush, mapping where the fire travels, measuring humidity and wind speed. We wear headlamps and look like miners lost in the woods. Every now and then, a gigantic flying insect whacks you in the face.

As a science writer, I often watch carefully crafted experiment in sparkling laboratories, but this seems like havoc. Team leader Jennifer Balch admits it does look messy.

Ms. JENNIFER BALCH (Researcher, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies): Our methods are pretty rudimentary because we're only capturing some of these phenomenon, but it's very exciting when we're actually, like, yes, that's exactly what's going on. That's what's happening here in this forest.

JOYCE: Capturing phenomena is just collecting data. This team knows that once this forest is ashes and debris, they'd better have some new answers about fire in the Amazon. That's why they're willing to spend 14-hour days in a furnace, dodging snakes and breathing smoke.

By the third day, everyone smells like a dirty fireplace. Don't forget to check for ticks, someone says. We head to a farm pond; a big ochre sun hangs near the horizon. We bob in the water like singed corks, hoping that all the measuring and mapping will somehow assemble itself into some revelation about fire in the Amazon.

SIMON: NPR's Christopher Joyce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.