Thousands of fires ravage large swaths of Russia each year, destroying forests and engulfing territories in acrid smoke.
Northeast Siberia has experienced particularly massive fires this summer amid record heat. Many other regions of the vast country have also fought forest fires.
These are some of the factors behind Russia’s endemic wildfires and their consequences.
– HEAT LOG
In recent years, Russia has recorded high temperatures that many scientists regard as a clear result of climate change. The warm weather has caused the permafrost to melt and fuel an increasing number of fires.
Siberia’s vast Sakha-Yakutia region has experienced record temperatures this year during a long hot spell. The fires there so far have burned more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land, making it the worst-hit region in Russia.
The fires have engulfed Yakutia’s cities, towns and villages in thick smoke, forcing authorities to briefly suspend all flights at the regional capital’s airport. The Russian Defense Ministry deployed its transport planes and helicopters to help put out the flames.
Fedot Tumusov, a member of the Russian parliament representing the region, called the fires “unprecedented.”
– FOLLOW-UP DIFFICULTIES
The forests that cover large areas of Russia make monitoring and quickly detecting new fires a daunting task.
In 2007, a federal aviation network that it oversaw was disbanded and its assets were turned over to regional authorities. The much-criticized change resulted in a rapid deterioration of the program.
Thousands of #Wildfires engulf vast swathes of #Russia every year, destroying forests and engulfing territories in acrid smoke.
Years later, the Russian government has reversed the measure and recreated the federal agency in charge of monitoring forests from the air. However, its resources remain limited, making it difficult to study the extensive forests of Siberia and the Far East of Russia.
– DISCOUNT OF SAFETY RULES
While some wildfires are caused by lightning, experts estimate that more than 70% of wildfires are caused by people.
It’s often just a cigarette butt or an abandoned campfire, but there are other causes as well.
Authorities regularly carry out controlled burns, setting fires to clear the way for new vegetation and deprive unanticipated forest fires of fuel. But observers say such intentional burns are often poorly managed, sometimes setting off massive wildfires rather than helping contain them.
Farmers across Russia also use the same technique to burn grass and small trees due to regulations imposing fines for keeping them on farmland. These burns get out of control regularly.
– ARSON DELIBERATED
Activists and experts say fires are often deliberately started to cover up evidence of illegal logging or to create new sites for logging under the false pretense of clearing burned areas.
Activists in Siberia and the Far East have denounced that most of these arsons are linked to companies that sell wood to a huge Chinese market and have called for a total ban on wood exports to China.
Officials have acknowledged the problem and vowed to tighten oversight, but Russia’s far-flung territory allows illegal activity to continue.
Critics point out that the 2007 forest code also handed control over to regional authorities and businesses, eroding centralized monitoring, fueling corruption and contributing to illegal logging practices that help start fires.
– CONTROVERSIAL REGULATIONS
Russian law allows authorities to allow wildfires to burn in certain areas if the potential damage is deemed not to be worth the costs of containing the fires.
Critics have long attacked the provision, arguing that it encourages inaction by authorities and slows down firefighting efforts, thus often allowing a fire that could have been extinguished at relatively little cost to burn out of control. .
“Eventually they have to extinguish it anyway, but the damage and costs are unmatched,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.
– LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES
Forest fires don’t just destroy trees; they also kill wildlife and can have consequences for human health by polluting the air.
Carbon emissions from fires and the destruction of forests, which are a major source of oxygen, eventually contribute to global warming and its potentially catastrophic impacts on the planet.
This year’s fires in Siberia have already emitted more carbon than the fires of some previous years, according to Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
Parrington said that the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other regions of Russia are particularly damaging in terms of emissions because the peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.
“So you are releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere,” he said.
While they have pledged to abide by the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often underscore the key role Russian forests play in slowing global warming. However, regular wildfires have the opposite effect, dramatically increasing carbon emissions.
“They emphasize that large areas are covered by forests but neglect the effect of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from fires,” said Greenpeace’s Kreindlin.