In 2003 the fire season in Russia started early. Soon after snowmelt satellites depicted the first fires in the Trans-Baikal region. Dry spring weather caused rapid desiccation of grassland and undergrowth in forests. Extended fires were observed in Southeast of Lake Baikal, rapidly increasing in number and size during April. Very early spring fires, often set to clean grasslands, swept into forests and turned out uncontrollable as spring continued.
In may 2003 the situation was almost completely out of control. Despite the efforts of EMERCOM of Russia, the Aerial Forest Protection Service Avialesookhrana and the ground forces to battle the fires there was no change of the situation detected from space. The fire-fighting forces even lost a helicopter in a tragic accident during firefighting in Chita in early May 2003. The lives of twelve people among which were the crew members of EMERCOM, reporters and a staff member of Avialesookhrana.
According to the latest satellite-derived analysis the total area burned by 22 May 2003 in the Russian Federation is 13 million hectares (ha). For comparison: The total area burned of the whole fire season 2002 was 11.7 million ha (see references at bottom of this web page). The regions most affected are Chitinskaya Oblast (4.5 million ha), Buryatiya Republic (2.3 million ha) and Amurskaya Oblast (2.6 million ha). These data have been generated by the Sukachev Institute for Forest, Krasnoyarsk, in cooperation with EMERCOM of Russia, and confirmed by other remote sensing institutions.
The fires left a path of destruction but also affected the atmosphere of the Northern Hemisphere. Satellites are depicting daily the extended smoke plumes that were produced by the fires, travelled to the South, crossing Mongolia and the North of China, and then travelled to the North of Japan, Sakhalin, the Sea of Okhotsk, and finally ended in Alaska.
The magnitude of fires in this year is dramatic. Already last year the size of fires was almost as large as in 1987 when a total area of forest and other lands on 14 million ha had been affected by fire in the territory of the former Soviet Union. The damages have not yet been verified. However, if only half of this years total area burned will be forests affected by fire the losses will be dramatic.
The Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) is observing the situation on a continuous basis. Officials and media interested in daily updates of satellite images should visit the GFMC website and search the files Current & Archived Significant Global Fire Events and Fire Season Summaries.