The Producer's Story

Out and about with the tenacious firefighters of the Amazon

Toughest Place to be a... producer Karen Walsh on what unifies firefighters from different sides of the globe

I was on the third and final leg of the journey from London to Brazil, each plane having become progressively smaller.

Now we were in a little six-seater about to take off from Goinania, the closest city to my final destination, a ranch on the Southern edge of the Amazon rain forest owned by American rancher and environmental activist John Carter.

As the plane took to the air I could see a thick fug enveloping the city. “Smoke from the fires” yelled John above the roar of the engines. You could have cut it with a knife. It was a taste of what was to come.

We were there in late September, the driest month of the year in Mato Grosso state, to film Toughest Place to be a Firefighter. Thirty plus degree heat, dusty dry earth, and grass like kindling. It’s illegal to set fires, for the obvious reasons. Yet in the three weeks I was there not a day passed without seeing at least one fire, normally more, nearly all of which had been deliberately set, either to clear virgin forest for agriculture or to burn farmers off their land to steal it.

Coming from a country where arsonists are prosecuted and where we take for granted an around the clock immediate response fire service, this was new territory.

For Sussex firefighter Neil Fairhall, here to experience life as in an Amazon fire brigade, the shock was even greater. There was one particular evening where the differences between the sheer might of Neil’s British fire-fighting brigade and the resources available in Mato Grosso were particularly stark. And I could have wept that we didn’t have the camera with us to record it.

We had been out filming all day with Neil and the Chief of the Jatoba Brigade Edimar Dos Santos Abril. It was late by the time we drove home, and as we neared Novo Santo Antonio (the fire brigade’s base), the sky was glowing red. Edimar was clearly concerned. Fires had been set in fields dangerously close to the town and something needed to be done, and quickly. In Britain a simple 999 call would bring fire engines roaring to the scene. But here rounding up the fire crew was a different story altogether.

Paul Stas the cameraman and Neil took one vehicle and headed back to base to start getting the kit together we would need for the long night’s filming. Edimar and I took the other vehicle and headed into town to find his colleagues and round up the team to fight the fire. They all have mobile phones, but signals here come and go, and Edimar hadn’t been able to raise any of them.

First stop was Almeida’s house. Not there. We sped back through town to try Santos’s house when Edimar suddenly slammed on the breaks, thrust the van into reverse gear, and roared back up the road. We came to a shuddering halt outside the church steps. Coming down, in his Sunday best, bible in hand was Amedia with his dad.

After a quick discussion Almeida jumped in the van, and we were off again, back towards Santos’s house. As we pulled up, the house was in darkness, but a neighbour told us he thought Santos might be at his mum’s. We raced off again. I was almost crying at the magic that was unfolding in front of me, with no camera to film it on. Paul the cameraman was now back at base and the scenario would be over by the time he returned with the kit. We found Santos at his mum’s and with the three fire fighters on board we headed back to HQ, where the two other members of the crew were already waiting.

Two hours after we had first seen the flames, the boys were out fighting them together with Neil, a long way from his home in Hayward’s Heath and our cameraman. The battle would take them through the night and most of the following day. There would be no replacement crews, no tea breaks, no fire hydrants to help quash the flames with water, just sheer determination and muscle power to beat the earth and smother the fire until it was out.

If ever there was a night that highlighted the differences between Neil’s and Edimar’s worlds this was it.

Yet one factor united them both - their passion for their job. Regardless of resources, they both fight fires because they believe in what they are doing, and are committed to trying to help.