Russia Officials on Tuesday acknowledged a 20% rise in forest fires in the past 24 hours but campaigning group Greenpeace alleged that state agencies are hugely underestimating the scope of the problem.
It was hard to independently verify the contradictory claims but a fire threat to the Eastern Siberia – Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline led Irkutsk Oil Company to suspend supplies of oil, said the official representative of Transneft, Igor Demin.
‘The situation with the fires in Irkutsk region and the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) remains difficult,’ he said. ‘There are six wildfires less than in five kilometres from the ESPO facilities. Fires were as close as 300 metres from key pipeline facilities, he said.
Social media pictures show the worrying impact of forest fires in remote areas.
Alexey Yaroshenko, head of forest department of Greenpeace Russia, warned: ‘The scale of the wildfires in Eastern Siberia can be compared with the catastrophe of 2010 in European Russia and the Urals.
‘Our estimates are approximate. Perhaps more than 1.7 million hectares are burning, since some of the largest fires are completely hidden under strong smoke.
‘For the second half of September, such a catastrophe in Siberia is unprecedented. It is associated not only with the inefficiency of the system of protection of forests from fires, but also with the climate change.’
Greenpeace highlighted satellite images to back their claims.
The group claimed that a summary published by Avialesokhrana – Russia’s Aerial Forest Protection Service – on 18 September, shows the wildfires covering an area 300 times smaller than estimated by Greenpeace. Grigory Kuksin, head of Greenpeace Russia’s firefighting programme, said:’Unfortunately, such areas were not completely extinguished before the autumn rains.
‘It was necessary to extinguish the fires at an early stage, when they were relatively small. Now you can just save the settlements and protected areas from the fire.’
The latest official bulletin from the agency highlighted 59 forest fires on Russian territory, covering an area of 3,453 hectares. The three worst-hit regions were all in Siberia.
A total of 1,900 hectares were said to be ablaze in the Sakha Republic, while fires in Irktusk region, close to Lake Baikal, have also ‘surged’, according to TASS. Some 42 hectares was on fire in the Pribaikalsky National Park. Around 412 hectares remained ablaze in Buryatia Republic.
Social media postings highlighted the problems posed by forest fires. Residents of the Evenk settlement of Vanavara – 730 kilometres north-east of Krasnoyarsk – complained about the smoke, and breathing problems.
Anna Trapeznikova posted: ‘The school is closed, locals are afraid to go out – the visibility is about 100-150 metres. Two flights are already cancelled – the runway is not visible.
‘Headaches, red eyes, nose and throat aching. It is not possible to get out the settlement.’ Locals are advised in megaphone messages not to go out, to abstain from alcohol. ‘Everyone waits for rain,’ she said.
Another local resident said: ‘Smoke is all around, we can not see even each other. The school is closed, the children did not go to classes. Head aches, throat discomfort, only water helps. Window shutters are closed, but the smoke is in the house.’
Officially, three fires are registered in the region.