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A satellite image of wildfires in Yakutia. July 16, 2019

Russia in flames Almost five million acres of forest are on fire in Siberia and Russia’s Far East. Smoke has spread over six of the country’s time zones.

Source: Meduza
A satellite image of wildfires in Yakutia. July 16, 2019
A satellite image of wildfires in Yakutia. July 16, 2019
Pierre Markuse / Copernicus Sentinel / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wildfires have covered almost two million hectares (4.9 million acres) of land in Siberia and Russia’s Far East. That includes 846 hectares (2,090 acres) in the Krasnoyarsk region, more than 557 (1,376 acres) in Yakutia, and 519 (1,282 acres) in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. On the Yamal Peninsula, fires have shrunk from more than 600 hectares (1,483 acres) to 11 (27 acres), but in the Irkutsk region, they grew by almost 30 percent in a single day to reach more than 458 hectares (1,132 acres). For comparison, in the entirety of the year 2018, Russia saw 9,900 wildfires occupy a total of 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres), and in 2017, 9,200 wildfires spread to 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) in total.

A view of the wildfire in the Krasnoyarsk region’s Boguchansky District.

Firefighting efforts have been minimal even though hundreds of first responders have been mobilized in the impacted regions. The wildfires are located primarily in remote forested areas where officials say the cost of fighting them would be greater than the potential short-term damage they could cause. Firefighters are deployed to fight the fires actively only when the flames threaten inhabited areas or infrastructure systems, TASS reported. Yury Lapshin, the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, said Russia’s federal forestry agency, Rosleskhoz, prescribes that methodology nationwide: “The logic is clear: we have to conserve resources,” he argued. However, some of Lapshin’s colleagues have insisted that the fires should be put out even if there is a “hypothetical threat to economically valuable facilities or inhabited areas.” Environmental activists and experts have gone even further, arguing that the “control zone” policy Lapshin cited is being applied incorrectly and only causes the fires to spread further, affecting vital natural resources and air quality.

The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty project Sibir.Realii noted, for example, that Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry only gave the order for local firefighters to avoid fighting wildfires in hard-to-reach areas in 2015. Since then, argued environmental activist Grigory Kuksin, a policy intended to save lives and money by keeping firefighters out of practically unnavigable locations has instead been used to leave the majority of Russia’s forests unprotected from wildfires. Environmental nonprofit leader and government advisor Alexander Kolotov also told Sibir.Realii that the resulting disasters contribute to the greenhouse effect in the Arctic, forming a positive feedback loop. Nonetheless, Lapshin said emergency responders would do best to “work around the edges of the fire.” That’s the route firefighters took near the village of Kuyumba in Lapshin’s region: an Emergencies Ministry response team worked to put out the fire, but neither aerial nor amphibious vehicles were deployed to assist them.

A map of the wildfires currently burning in Siberia.

The fires developed due to 30-degree heat (86 degrees Fahrenheit), strong winds, and heat lightning, the Krasnoyarsk Region Emergencies Ministry reported. Local journalists in the Irkutsk region pointed to heat lightning as the primary cause of the fires. Meanwhile, Russia’s federal Natural Resources Ministry wrote that the wildfires in the Krasnoyarsk region were caused by a combination of human actions (35.8 percent of all cases), flames spreading from other regions (34.4 percent), or lightning (25.4 percent). Russia’s Hydrometeorological Center predicted that a high-level wildfire advisory would remain in place in the Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk regions as well as Yakutia until July 26.

Smoke from the fires has spread into several other regions. On July 22, plumes of smoke reached the Omsk region and covered the Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Kemerovo regions almost entirely. Khakasia, the Altai region, and the eastern half of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (KhMAO) were also almost completely submerged in smoke, the Hydrometeorological Center reported. By July 24, the smoke in KhMAO had died down, but it subsequently appeared in the Tyumen region and Yekaterinburg, six time zones away from the fires on Russia’s east coast. Russia’s forestry agency predicted that the Irkutsk region would see persistent smog at least until July 26.

Cities throughout eastern Russia have seen a severe drop in air quality, according to the atmospheric monitoring service CityAir. Data from the service indicates that maximum regulatory limits for air pollution have been exceeded in both Novosibirsk (1.5 million residents) and Tomsk (544,000 residents) in recent days. Since July 24, pollutant levels rose above government standards in Chelyabinsk (1.15 million residents) as well. Igor Shpekht, who leads the Krasnoyarsk.Nebo project, reported on similarly dangerous air quality in the Krasnoyarsk region. “The air is still in a state of severe pollution. [Government] services are pretending it’s nothing too scary,” Shpekht argued. He has also asserted that government officials have cherry-picked air quality data rather than reporting overall averages.

According to Russia’s federal consumer protection agency, the concentration of solid airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter is higher than twice the regulatory standard in the city of Krasnoyarsk (one million residents). In Novosibirsk, scientists have found soot, nitrogen compounds, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and phenol in the air at concentrations lower than the regulatory maximum. In the Irkutsk region city of Kirensk (12,640 residents), carbon monoxide levels were measured at 1.1 times the maximum standard on July 23. In Yekaterinburg (1.4 million residents), Russia’s Ecology Ministry has reported fine dust concentrations of 1.8 times the maximum standard.

Residents of Siberia have asked for a state of emergency to be declared in every region affected by the fires. A petition to that effect on collected more than 60,000 signatures in the course of two days. It pleads, “Exercise real leadership! Protect our forests, our water, and our health!”

A state of emergency will be declared only where air pollutant concentrations exceed regulatory norms, said Sergey Menyailo, presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal Okrug. At the moment, states of emergency are in place in the Krasnoyarsk region, the Irkutsk region, two districts in Buryatia, and three in Yakutia. A number of regions are under wildfire alerts, meaning that residents are prohibited from burning dry materials, and other regions have an active “black sky” alert that places additional limits on pollutant emissions at industrial facilities.

Report by Alexander Baklanov

English version by Hilah Kohen

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