MOSCOW (AP) – Thousands of forest fires engulf vast swathes of Russia every year, destroying forests and enveloping regions in acrid smoke.
Northeastern Siberia experienced particularly massive fires this summer amid record heat. Many other parts of the vast country have also battled forest fires.
Some factors behind the endemic forest fires in Russia and their consequences:
In recent years, Russia has recorded high temperatures that many scientists consider to be the obvious result of climate change. The hot weather has melted the permafrost and fueled an increasing number of fires.
Siberia’s vast Sakha-Yakutia region experienced a long period of extremely hot and dry weather this summer, with temperatures reaching 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) and setting records for several days. The heat wave helped spark hundreds of fires, which have so far burned over 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land, making it the most affected from Russia.
The fires enveloped towns and villages in Yakutia in thick smoke, forcing authorities to briefly suspend flights at the regional capital’s airport. The Department of Defense deployed transport planes and helicopters to help put out the flames.
Fedot Tumusov, a member of the Russian parliament who represents the region, called the fires “unprecedented” in their scale.
Forests that cover large areas of Russia make monitoring and early detection of new fires a daunting task.
In 2007, a federal aircraft fire detection network was dissolved and its assets were turned over to regional authorities. The much-criticized change led to a rapid deterioration of the program.
The government then overturned the decision and reinstated the federal agency responsible for monitoring forests from the air. However, its resources remain limited, making it difficult to survey the massive forests of Siberia and the Far East.
Neglect of fire safety rules
While some forest fires are started by lightning, experts estimate that more than 70% of them are caused by people, ranging from carelessly throwing cigarettes to abandoned campfires, but there are others. causes.
Authorities regularly carry out controlled burns, starting a fire to pave the way for new vegetation or to deprive unplanned forest fires of fuel. Observers say such intentional burns are often mismanaged and sometimes start larger fires instead of containing them.
Farmers also use the same technique to burn grass and small trees on farmland. Such burns regularly get out of hand.
Campaigners and experts say fires are often set on purpose to cover up evidence of illegal logging or to create new places for timber harvesting under the false pretext of cleaning up burned areas.
Activists in Siberia and the Far East allege the arson is driven by high demand for timber in the colossal Chinese market, and have called for a total ban on timber exports to China.
Officials have recognized the problem and pledged to step up surveillance, but Russia’s remote territory and regulatory loopholes make it difficult to stop illegal activity.
Critics blame the 2007 forest code which gave control of forests to regional authorities and businesses, eroding centralized oversight, fueling corruption and contributing to illegal logging practices that help spawn fires.
Russian law allows authorities to let wildfires burn in certain areas if the potential damage is not worth the cost of containing them.
Critics have long attacked the provision, arguing that it encourages inaction by authorities and slows fire-fighting efforts, so that a fire that could have been extinguished at relatively low cost is often allowed to burn. in an uncontrolled manner.
“They have to put it out eventually anyway, but the damage and costs are second to none,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.
Long term consequences
In addition to destroying trees, forest fires also kill wildlife and pose a threat to human health by polluting the air.
Carbon emissions from fires and destruction of forests, which are a major source of oxygen, also contribute to global warming and its potentially catastrophic impact.
This year’s fires in Siberia have already emitted more carbon than in previous years, according to Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
He said the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other parts of Russia are particularly harmful in terms of emissions, as peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.
“Then it releases all that carbon into the atmosphere,” Parrington said.
While pledging to respect the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often point to the key role played by their forests in slowing global warming. However, regular forest fires have the opposite effect, dramatically increasing carbon emissions.
“They point out that large areas are covered with forests but overlook the effect of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the fires,” said Kreindlin of Greenpeace.
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