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Pensioner burns down 673 hectares of Brazilian rainforest by setting car alight in insurance scam

A pensioner’s car insurance scam backfired, causing a disastrous blaze burning huge swathes of land, when his car exploded in a protected rainforest in Brazil.  

Heli Barroso Martins, 66, burned down 673 hectares of vegetation in the the Araras Biological Reserve, in Petrópolis in the mountainous region of Rio de Janeiro.

The fire, which destroyed the equivalent of 1,257 football fields of environmentally protected land, was caused by a staged car-jacking that backfired. 

The pensioner claimed that while he was driving home on July 27 on a remote road in the region, he was mugged at gunpoint by two men on a motorbike.

He said the gunmen set fire to his vehicle after they were unable to start the car due to ignition problems. 

Martins said he was afraid of being killed and ran into the forest before calling friends for help. 

But Police became suspicious of his version of events after firefighters reported that the source of the blaze was an abandoned car that had been ‘intentionally’ doused in gasoline.

Officers were also surprised the attackers failed to rob the accused’s phone and that he appeared unruffled by the episode when reporting the crime.

Two friends who picked up the stranded pensioner after the alleged robbery testified that he was calm, unharmed and his clothes were dry and clean.

Police confirmed on July 31 that the suspect has been detained without bail. 

They believe he planned the insurance scam and had hoped to collect 25,000 Reais, approximately £3,600 ($4,700) for the burnt out wreck.

Chief inspector Joao Valentim said the damage done to the Atlantic Forest was ‘catastrophic’. 

He said forensic experts reported the fire was caused by an ‘explosion which set fire to dry vegetation and strong winds propelled the flames’ causing it to spread.

Officers visited around 20 petrol stations in surrounding cities and discovered images of Martins buying a gallon of petrol in nearby Três Rios, the day before the incident.

Footage shows a petrol station attendant filling up the container and Martins paying for it then putting the canister into a carrier bag and in the back of his car. 

He reportedly told investigators the gallon of fuel was for a friend but couldn’t remember the friend’s name.

The fire spread rapidly over very steep and difficult to access terrain and took firefighters three days to battle.

A joint task force of 72 fire fighters and environmental agents fought the flames using around 17 vehicles.

Two helicopters transported teams to the hard to reach regions and water was also dropped by air onto burning areas.

Isabela Bernardes, head of the environmental reserve, said: ‘It’s our biggest environmental damage since the area was protected 43 years ago. It will take decades for nature to recover.’

She added that they will be calculating the wildlife loss of the fire for years as they believe hundreds of animals may have died in the disaster.

‘Fire fighting teams saw animals fleeing and seeking shelter from the flames.’

The suspect faces charges of attempted fraud and of causing a fire in protected area under environmental laws.

The maximum penalty, if found guilty, is 15 years imprisonment.

This comes as fires in the Amazon rainforest increased 28 per cent in July from a year ago.

There were 6,803 fires in the Amazon last month, compared to 5,318 in the same month of 2019, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported.  

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