Amazon fires: The tragedy of the couple who died protecting their home

Vinícius Lemos
BBC News Brasil

  • Published
Farmers Eidi and Romildo in a family pictureImage source, Family handout
Image caption,
Farmers Eidi and Romildo died while trying to salvage their home

The home of Eidi Rodrigues and her husband Romildo - a wooden shack with a thatched roof - now lies in ruins.

It was their first house, and it made them proud.

The couple lived in Machadinho D'Oeste, a rural village in the Amazon state of Rondonia in north-west Brazil.

It is a region marred by land disputes, and among communities in Machadinho D'Oeste, it is common practice to clear land for pastures and crops.

Fires had been a constant concern for the couple, who feared that those started by their neighbours could spread to their backyard, especially during periods of drought.

On 13 August, Eidi and Romildo's worst fears were realised.

Image source, Family album
Image caption,
The wooden shack was the first ever property the couple owned

The couple died while trying to protect their home, unable to escape when the flames got out of control.

"People use fire to clear the land in this region, but on that day it was very windy. The fire spread too quickly and didn't give them time to run away," Jeigislaine Carvalho, one of Eidi's daughters, told the BBC.

What is happening in the Amazon?

A large number of fires are ravaging parts of the Amazon, a tropical rainforest that spans much of Brazil and other South American countries.

Satellite data shows a huge increase in fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon in particular.

In Rondonia state alone, there have been more than 6,500 fires so far, a rise of 146% on 2018, Inpe data show.

The extent of the fires has caused concern and outrage across the globe, with world leaders calling on Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro to take action.

French President Emmanuel Macron has described the steep rise in fires as an "international crisis" which critics have blamed on Mr Bolsonaro's anti-environmental rhetoric and soft stance on deforestation violations.

Media caption,

"It's extremely upsetting... to see this kind of devastation" - the BBC's Will Grant flew over northern Rondonia state

Brazilian ministers said the money was not needed and they accused foreign powers of wanting control of the Amazon.

Eidi and Romildo saved their earnings for more than 10 years to purchase the land where they built their house. Neighbours told the police the couple had avoided leaving their property, even during intense fires.

Like many other farmers in the region, they used firebreaks - gaps in vegetation which act as barriers to stop or at least to slow down the progress of wildfires.

"People do whatever they can to avoid losing the very little they own," detective Celso Kondageski said.

Image source, João Messias Monteiro
Image caption,
Small farmers in Machadinho D'Oeste often use fire to clear land

The rural village where Eidi and Romildo lived is located 350km (217 miles) south of Rondonia's capital, Porto Velho. It is a deforested part of the state, which means fires travel faster.

On 13 August, locals shared videos showing huge flames engulfing the area. Jeigislaine, Eidi's daughter, said her mother and stepfather had tried to save the roof tiles they had recently purchased for home renovations.

"The neighbours told me that they were taking the material to a more remote area so that it would not burn," she said.

Fire was approaching the back of the property, which gave Eidi and Romildo an escape route from the front of the house, witnesses told the police.

Image source, João Messias Monteiro
Image caption,
The property was swallowed by flames coming from opposite directions

But suddenly they were cornered by another fire coming from the front.

According to local reports, the fires in Machadinho D'Oeste consumed an area spanning more than 106 acres (0.42 sq km).

Eidi and Ronildo's house was destroyed along with two other properties.

Image source, João Messias Monteiro
Image caption,
The 13 August fire burned down an area of 106 acres

One witness told the BBC that, fearful of receiving a fine for deforestation, people were reluctant to summon the fire brigade when the flames started getting out of control.

"The fire only stopped after it destroyed all the vegetation around. It was very strong and I guess even the firefighters would have struggled to control it," said the witness, who asked to remain anonymous.

It was only on 14 August - a day after the flames ripped through Eidi and Ronildo's house - that the fire service turned up. They found the charred bodies of Eidi and Romildo around 100m (328ft) away from where their house once stood.

The police believe they died of carbon monoxide inhalation. Eidi and Romildo were the only fatalities.

Image source, Family album
Image caption,
The couple used to raise hens and pigs

The other neighbours managed to escape, and one of the homes wrecked by the flames was empty that day.

Police are trying to determine how the fire started.

Media caption,

Why the Amazon rainforest helps fight climate change

"The fire is an environmental crime. People responsible for it could also be charged with manslaughter," detective Celso Kondagesk said.

"Someone who starts a fire in an area like that should be aware that it can kill someone."

Eidi's daughter says she wants justice. "This is irresponsible and it killed two people. Whoever did this has to pay," she said.