MOSCOW, THE WASHINGTON POST — For Russia, there are two types of fires raging across Siberia: the kind the authorities are fighting and the others they are allowing to burn.
That’s because Siberia is so vast that huge fires can burn without threatening any major settlements, transportation systems or infrastructure — but are still part of a swath of infernos that together are larger than all the other blazes around the world.
On one level, the Siberian fires are part of an annual cycle. But many climate experts see the staggering scope of this year’s fires as another sign of greater fire risks on a warming planet that is potentially being made even hotter by huge carbon emissions from the blazes.
Record heat in northwest Russia
Russia is fighting more than 190 forest fires in Siberia that have closed airports and roads, forced widespread evacuations and sent a pall of smoke across the North Pole. But it has abandoned dozens more fires covering thousands of square miles, with no effort to fight them.
As Russia faces one of its worst fire seasons, environmentalists say there is little urgency about an event that officials play down every year.
“For years, officials and opinion leaders have been saying that fires are normal, that the taiga is always burning, and there is no need to make an issue out of this. People are used to it,” said Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with Greenpeace Russia. The taiga is a belt of coniferous forest around the planet at between 50 and 60 degrees north of the equator.
As Russia increasingly confronts extreme weather associated with climate change, the rapid spread of fires in Yukutia — a vast forested Siberian region around the size of Argentina — came with drought, some of the hottest weather on record and strong winds.
The fires raging in Siberia are bigger than fires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States and Canada combined, with analysts warning that this year could surpass Russia’s worst fire year, 2012, according to Yaroshenko.
Past wildfires in Siberia barely made a ripple in the Russian media. That’s slowly beginning to change, Yaroshenko said. Still, many Russians are unaware of the risk of burning off small plots in volatile conditions, convinced that big fires are the result of powerful criminals or corrupt officials, covering up crimes — conspiracy theories for which there is little evidence.
More than 8600 firefighters, agricultural workers, soldiers and other emergency workers are fighting forest fires that have burned more than 62,300 square miles since the beginning of the year, according to Greenpeace. That’s an area nearly twice the size of Austria.
Local officials say they are desperate for more volunteers and more money to fight the fires.
At the same time, authorities are letting 69 fires burn unhindered because they are too difficult to fight or do not threaten houses or economic infrastructure. These fires have scorched nearly 8,000 square miles — nearly 10 times bigger than California’s devastating Dixie Fire.
More than 100 fires in the United States this year have burned 8,977 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In Canada more than 13,000 square miles have burned so far this year in British Columbia and the Yukon, Manitoba and Ontario, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.
Fires in Turkey burned 681 square miles this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. In Greece, fire tore through 424 square miles, and in Italy, 403 square miles burned, the organization said.
About half of Russia’s forests are left unprotected by regional authorities, mainly because of inadequate funding for firefighting, Yaroshenko said.
“These forests have a very significant role in regulating the environment,” he said. “Most of the forests in unprotected areas are in the far north. They grow very slowly, they are very sensitive, and if they burn down, the impact on the environment is huge.”
Each year, hundreds of fires burn in Russia’s forests and plains. Greenpeace bases its figures on statistics from Russian fire services that monitor the blazes.
But Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology only tallies fires in forest reserves that threaten populated areas, excluding fires in the open steppe or farmland. The ministry estimates that the area burned in forest fires this year at slightly more than 30,000 square miles, less than half the Greenpeace figure.
Even so, the minister, Alexander Kozlov, last week called for a more than 100 percent increase in the firefighting budget, from $81 million to almost $190 million.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday ordered the Emergency Situations Ministry to expand fire fighting teams and increase the operations of fire fighting aircraft in Yakutia.
Putin, meanwhile, sent two Ilyushin-76 firefighting aircraft and two Mi-8 helicopters to Greece to assist efforts to fight fires, the state news agency Tass reported Wednesday, after earlier sending firefighting planes to assist Turkey. Eighteen planes are fighting fires in Russia, but some critics oppose sending fire fighting equipment to other countries given the scale of the crisis in Russia.
Yaroshenko said a big problem was the reflexive, long-standing tendency of regional officials to put a gloss on local statistics to avoid getting into trouble with their superiors in Moscow.
“Officials just lie about the scale of it, that is, they willfully misrepresent the data, because every official is responsible for making sure there is a beautiful picture,” he said. “In general, it’s no longer possible to hide the fire, as everyone can see what’s happening with satellite images, but the habit is there, and they still sometimes try to hide these fires.”
The region’s head of forestry, Sergei Sivtsev, told Kommersant newspaper that the weather in June in central Yakutia was the hottest since 1888.
But officials and state media minimize the problem — with daily reports on how many fires have been put out or contained, not how much has burned. There is no focus on the loss of vulnerable old growth forests and no estimates of wildlife casualties, Yaroshenko said.
Aisen Nikolaev, head of Yakutia region, said last week that climate change was the main cause of the fires.
“We are living through the hottest, driest summer in the history of meteorological measurements since the end of the 19th century,” he told RIA Novosti.
Smoke from the Siberian fires covered more than 2 million square miles, drifting across the Arctic and North Pole, according to satellite images from Copernicus, the European atmospheric monitoring agency.
Vladimir Leonov of the region’s Aerial Forest Protection Service blamed lightning strikes in dry storms triggered many of the fires.
Many people believe the pervasive conspiracy theories and rumors that corrupt officials and business executives set the fires to cover up illegal logging. Yaroshenko said such cases are extremely rare. He said he knew of just two incidents.
But the disinformation meant that small farmers or villagers were unaware of the risk of burning land plots to clear weeds. Many of them thought burning dry grass helped new grass to grow.
“When people are sure that the forest is burned down by criminal intent, they don’t think to exercise caution themselves. And now ordinary people are coming to the forests and leaving unextinguished fires there, and they no longer pay particular attention to these fires.”
Last year, Russian fires burned 4.7 billion trees, seven times more than were planted, according to a Greenpeace study using satellite images. In one month, Russian fires emitted carbon equal to Sweden’s total CO2 emissions for the year.
Russia’s summers are likely to be drier and hotter, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released Monday. About a third of Siberia’s permafrost will melt by the end of the century, even if global carbon emissions fall sharply, the report said.
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