The frustrating thing is, that these small fires are so easy to deal with the first time around, Cochrane said. You practically can stomp them out, or just sweep away brush ahead of them with a broom. But subsequent fires are of huge intensity that are extremely difficult to put out.
From there, the troubles expand. Forests are decimated. Smoke endangers populations. And rare plant species, from the rainforests rich biodiversity, can be eradicated.
Carbon emissions skyrocket. Data is scarce, but Cochrane notes that three rainforest fires in Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia may have equaled 41 percent of world fossil fuel emissions in 1998.
The problem, Cochrane said, is that fire is so common in rainforests. People routinely use fire to clear existing forests, to keep cleared land free from brush, to cook and other uses. Satellite images of rainforest regions show vast areas of smoke and fire but its nearly impossible to tell which fires are intentional.
Cochranes research shows broad forest fragmentation above and beyond the intentional clearing of rainforest. The specialized satellite images he has created show a different type of destruction. The areas damaged by unintentional fires arent shown by cleared squares, but rather thinned, decimated clumps where rich forest once grew.
More research is needed to better understand fire behavior and how to fight forest fires in rainforests, Cochrane said.
We need to recognize this as a problem that needs energy and action, before it gets worse, he said. What isnt clear is how long it takes after the forest burns for it to recover. But its a safe bet that some of them never will.