MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And fire is the topic of today's installment of Climate Connections, our yearlong series with National Geographic about the effects of climate change. In Brazil, it's the end of the burning season when people use fire to clear land for farms and ranches. But people also use fire as a weapon in land wars - disputes over who owns big chunks of forest land.
Scientists say this fire cycle is not just destroying parts of the Amazon's southern forests, but altering the climate as well.
NPR's Christopher Joyce recently visited Brazil's frontier where he met a rancher who's in the middle of a range war.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: John Carter is an American who's adopted Brazil as his home. He's equally comfortable on a horse or in the cockpit of his Cessna three-seat airplane. At the moment, he's flying above the southern edge of the Amazon forest over his property, a cattle ranch called Esperanza.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE)
JOHN CARTER: On a normal year, we fly through the burning season, you can't see for a kilometer on either side of you. You can't see the ground below you. The smoke layer goes from the ground up the - if you're in 15,000 feet, it's a blanket of smoke that covers the Amazon. It's unbelievable.
JOYCE: It's common in the frontier here for squatters or land grabbers to set fire to land to force owners off, especially when land title is in dispute. If they can show the owners aren't developing that land in the first place, they have a better chance of acquiring it. Sometimes these fires rage out of control. Carter says squatters set fire to his neighbor's ranch and it spread to his.
Now, his pastures and forests are a blackened wasteland.
CARTER: See the fire there? See where it burned? It's burned. It's gone. Look at that, look at that. It's gone.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE STOPPING)
JOYCE: Carter learned cattle ranching in his native Texas. He was a paratrooper in the first Iraq war, and then married a Brazilian and came here. His ranch covers 22,000 acres. He says over 90 percent of it has just burned. And fires are still consuming what's left.
Carter's ranch hands managed to save his farmhouse. Among them was Sebastian Fonseca dos Santos, who fought the fire for days.
SEBASTIAN FONSECA DOS SANTOS: (speaking foreign language)
JOYCE: Dos Santos says the fire came over a hill and crossed the swamp. He says it was brutal, the huge fire, and he went off to get the bulldozers to clear around the houses so they wouldn't burn down.
Carter isn't the only victim of these burning duels. These fires put millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and that makes global warming worse. They're also drying up the Amazon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)
JOYCE: Carter wants to protect the Amazon forest. He started a local environmental group to do that. But for the moment, climate change is not high on his worry list. He's angry. He loads a pistol and sticks it in a backpack and drives out to see the damage.
Dark plumes of smoke punctuate the horizon like escalation points.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING FIRE)
JOYCE: We park and walk down a dirt track. We're with Dan Nepstad, a colleague of Carter's who's a fire ecologist with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Nepstad cautiously approaches a column of flame that's climbing a bank of trees. He calls it the chimney.
DAN NEPSTAD: It's where the fire is moving along the forest floor. And all of a sudden it'll find a standing dead tree or a bunch of vines that provide sort of a ladder for the fire to climb up to the forest canopy.
JOYCE: There's a lot of carbon going up into the atmosphere from fires like this one and the climate damage doesn't stop when the flames die out.
NEPSTAD: Once the fire moves through this forest, those trees die and begin to decompose, even more carbon is going to go into the atmosphere.
(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)
JOYCE: Around the world, deforestation contributes to that one-fifth of all greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)
JOYCE: Most of Carter's cattle have scattered. He spots a calf that's been separated from its mother and he drives after it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
JOYCE: Carter leaps from the moving truck and runs after the calf through the smoldering forest.
CARTER: Get him, get him, get him. (Unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF CALF BAWLING)
JOYCE: He ropes the calf's legs with a few turns and loads him at the back of his truck.
CARTER: One problem less.
JOYCE: Carter says his property has been burned three times over the last several years. For him, this is a personal battle to hold on to this ranch. But he says he can't do it alone. He's trying to make alliances with his fellow ranchers.
CARTER: And the only way that we've seen to really fight this is to work with other landowners and have good neighbor policy, where you talk to people. One ranch will send his firefighting machinery over to your property. That's the best way to do it.
JOYCE: Otherwise, he says, much of the Amazon will burn and with billions of tons of carbon in that giant forest, the climate will know the difference.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
NORRIS: And settlers aren't the people burning the Amazon. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Christopher Joyce reports on some scientists who intentionally set forest fires to study how they influence the climate. And you can get podcasts of all of our Climate Connection stories at npr.org.