Massive ash cloud from wildfires engulfs southern Paraguay
Massive ash cloud from wildfires engulfs southern Paraguay
Smoke blown from fires in drought-striken Argentina shrouds Asunción and surrounding regions in dangerous haze

A massive, fast-moving cloud of ash hundreds of metres tall and several kilometres wide has swept over southern Paraguay, as storms blew debris from wildfires raging in neighbouring Argentina following two years of severe drought.

The colossal bank of smog enveloped Asunción, Paraguay's capital, late on Monday, shrouding the city and its suburbs in a thick, grey haze with the aroma of burnt vegetation.

Forecasters warned residents to stay inside to avoid breathing in the smoky miasma.

In the southern district of Ayolas, where fires have been blazing since early January, conditions were so dark that birds went up into the trees to roost, thinking it was night, said Ray Mendoza, a volunteer firefighter.

"In a question of minutes the city fell into complete darkness," Mendoza said. "It's the first time in 20 to 25 years doing this that I've seen something like it."

An index measuring particulate matter in the air shot up from single digits to over 180, close to levels deemed "very unhealthy" by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Striking videos on social media showed the towering wall of dust and soot racing over the Paraná River from the province of Corrientes in northern Argentina - 250km (155 miles) south of Asunción - and smothering beaches, farms and highways.

Motorists were forced to turn on their headlights and pull over as visibility dropped to near-zero and darkness fell in the early afternoon. "Lord Jesus, my God," one passenger exclaimed.

A weather front of cold air from the south acted "like a broom," explained Eduardo Dose, a Paraguayan hydrologist, scooping up soot from burnt pastures and forests as well as dust from drought-stricken wetlands. Strong winds then channelled the choking cloud up the Paraguay River and directly to the capital.

Violent storms are normal for the sub-tropical region, Dose added. "But if we're going to talk about what causes the fires, there we can talk about climate change."

Massive fires have been raging across Argentina for almost two months. Nearly a million hectares in Corrientes have been burned, an area the size of Puerto Rico or Cyprus. Blazes continue to burn in nine of Argentina's 23 provinces.

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