Fires have erupted across Russia’s vast forests and steppes in recent weeks, with blazes flaring up in several regions of southwestern Siberia. Several villages have already been devastated by the flames and local authorities have reported at least 10 deaths in recent days.
The Siberian Time, an English-language newspaper covering the area, has been posting videos of dramatic scenes of the fires on Twitter since mid-April. DW has not independently verified the videos.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged regional officials to bring the wildfires under control as they posed a threat to life, the environment and the economy.
“We cannot allow the situation of last year to repeat itself, when the wildfires were the most prolonged and intense in recent years,” he said in comments aired on state television. In 2021, Greenpeace said Russia burned a record 18.8 million hectares (72,600 square miles) of forest, steppe and peatland – an area roughly the size of Syria.
Burning bogs from boreal forests is a “climate bomb,” the environmental group said. Carbon-rich peat contains organic material that has accumulated over thousands of years, so the emissions from every square foot of peat fire are “several times higher than those of the fiercest wildfires.”
Around half of the world’s carbon stored in peatlands lies along the Arctic Circle, including Siberia – that’s billions of tons. Peat fires are particularly difficult to extinguish.
War, sanctions can hamper response
Russia’s federal forest agency said at a news conference in late April that it was on high alert and ready to deploy helicopters, drones and other equipment. In recent years, Russian troops have also been dispatched to help put out the flames.
However, with a significant number of Russian soldiers and resources tied up in fighting in Ukraine, some analysts have suggested this year’s firefighting may not be up to the task.
“It is inevitable that the allocation of resources to war will distract from firefighting efforts,” Thomas Smith, associate professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics, said in an email. He has been monitoring recent fires with satellite imagery.
Max Bergmann, head of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told DW that Russia probably still has the necessary reserves to fight forest fires. However, he pointed out that the ongoing war and international sanctions will likely strain other resources, including budget and logistics.
“One of the challenges Russia may face due to export controls and sanctions is servicing some helicopters and other advanced military equipment,” with parts generally sourced from abroad, he said.
With the few parts that make it into the country, the challenge will be “to prioritize the maintenance and repair of the firefighting fleet or the fleet deployed against Ukraine, […] one of those guns-for-butter questions that Putin will have to juggle going forward.”
Entire communities have been devastated by recent fires, including in the Krasnoyarsk Krai town of Uyar
Wildfires are more common and more destructive
According to the Russian Emergencies Ministry, around 4,000 wildfires covering about 270,000 hectares (about 1,040 square miles) have been reported on Russian territory since the beginning of this year. Most were concentrated in a handful of regions, including Krasnoyarsk, Kemerovo, Kurgan, Omsk, and Tyumen.
Wildfires, started by lightning or spontaneous combustion, are part of the natural cycle in Siberia’s relatively fireproof ecosystem saturated with lakes, rivers and swamps. But climate change is making it warmer and drier, increasing the risk of fire. Siberia, known for its long, frigid Arctic winters, is warming faster than anywhere else on earth – about twice the global average. And when the ice caps recede and the darker open water absorbs more of the sun’s rays, it only makes matters worse.
“It’s too early to tell if these early fires [in the south] are an indicator of what could happen further north later in the season,” said Smith of the London School of Economics, adding that weather systems and other conditions will all play a role. “However, it is important to note that climate change in the Arctic is now making extreme fire seasons more likely, so given the right weather, on average, fire seasons are likely to become increasingly destructive.”
Smith said the fires across Siberia would likely pose a challenge even if Russian troops weren’t employed elsewhere. “In recent years it has been clear that the scale of fires in Siberia, even in peacetime, exceeded the capacity of Russia’s firefighting resources,” he said, adding that many remote fires are simply left to burn. However, this year there is the possibility of “larger socio-economic losses due to the reduced civil protection”.
Peat fires can smolder for months and release 10 to 100 times more carbon than a burning tree
And while Russia is unlikely to shift its attention from Ukraine to firefighting anytime soon, Bergmann said it’s possible another devastating fire season could force the Kremlin to reconsider its priorities.
“Putin is juggling two competing goals,” said Bergmann. “One is his geopolitical goals in Ukraine and the other is internal stability.
Greenpeace Russia is calling for longer-term solutions to prevent wildfires from raging on this scale, such as implementing sustainable forest management practices and increasing funding for fire prevention.
Edited by: Jennifer Collins