Photos show scale of massive fires tearing through Siberian forests

23 July 2020

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RUSSIA – This week, Greenpeace International released a series of dramatic photos revealing megafires burning in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, Russia. The images, captured on July 16 by drone, show red flames tearing through the Siberian boreal forests, razing trees and producing large plumes of hazardous smoke.

This year, the fire season started early in Russia after an unusually hot winter and spring, which led to extreme temperatures in remote Siberian towns. By June 17, Verkhoyansk, a town located in the Arctic region of Siberia, recorded a reading of more than 38° Celsius (100° Fahrenheit) — the highest temperature ever documented north of the Arctic Circle.

A fire burning through forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Image by Greenpeace International.
Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, is just one region where fires are burning throughout Russia in 2020. Image by Greenpeace International.

According to satellite monitoring data from Russia’s ISDM-Rosleskhoz forest fires monitoring system, the burning began in February, but picked up speed in March.

Since the start of 2020, it’s estimated that fires have burnt through 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of the Russian landscape, which is an area bigger than Greece, and about 10.9 million hectares (27 million acres) of forest, according to Greenpeace International. For context, the global extent of tree loss in 2019 was 11.9 million hectares. That means fires this year have affected an area of forest in Russia nearly equivalent to the planet’s tree loss last year even though it’s only mid-July.

In Krasnoyarsk, where the photographs were taken, 27,461 fires were detected by satellite between April 21 and July 21. Since 2000, Krasnoyarsk has experienced a 9.8% decrease in its tree cover, according to data compiled by Global Forest Watch.

Smoke from the Siberian fires are spreading across Russia. Image by Greenpeace International.
A fire in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, spreading through the forest. Image by Greenpeace International.

“Photos from the ground or from drones provide a better understanding of what is visible in space images, but they cannot cover even one [large] fire, but only its edge or part of it,” Alexey Yaroshenko, a forest expert at Greenpeace Russia, told Mongabay in an email. “The width of the largest fires can be measured in tens of kilometers.”

It’s believed that some fires were caused by lightning strikes, while others were started on river banks, likely by campfires, according to Greenpeace International. Scientists also speculate that “zombie fires,” remnants of last year’s fires, silently burned in the peat bogs of the Siberian Arctic throughout winter and reemerged in the spring.

While Russian authorities are working to extinguish some of the fires, they’re only focused on about 5% of the burning area, according to Yaroshenko: “95% of the registered area of forest fires are fires that no one extinguishes at all — fires in the so-called ‘control zones,’ which are allowed by law not to extinguish. These zones account for about 45% of the country’s forests. Last year they accounted for 52%, but were slightly reduced.”

Drone footage captured these dramatic images of the fires in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Image by Greenpeace International.
A patch of burnt forest next to a remaining section of forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.

But firefighters don’t have enough resources to combat even 5% of the burning forests in Siberia, Yaroshenko said.

“The forests belong to the Russian Federation, and their management has been transferred to the regions,” Yaroshenko said. “Regions receive about 30 billion rubles [$420 million] a year from the federal budget for this management, but in reality, according to the most conservative estimate, at least 90 billion [$1.2 billion] is needed. The regions of Siberia and the Far East are financed worst of all — in our estimate, one-tenth of the real need. It is impossible to ensure normal forest protection within the framework of such financing, and most regions do not have their own money for this.”

The aftermath of a fire in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Image by Greenpeace International.
Smoke from a burning fire. A fire burning in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.

According to a recent update on the website of Russia’s Federal Forest Agency, personnel were fighting 129 active fires across the region as of July 21.

Last week, noxious smoke swept across several Russian cities, including Yakutsk, Ugorsk and Sovetsky in the Khanty-Mansiysky district, according to Greenpeace International. There are concerns that residents, who are already battling the COVID-19 pandemic, will experience respiratory distress from the smoke.

The fires are also releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the air, which is believed to contribute to the thawing of permafrost and the melting of Arctic ice.

A fire smouldering in a boreal forest in Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.
Fire moving into a forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.

“Growing areas of forest fires are transforming entire regions of boreal forests from net sinks of carbon dioxide to net sources of carbon dioxide,” Yaroshenko said. “The situation is exacerbated by emissions of black carbon, as well as methane emissions from melting permafrost. In all likelihood, some of the Russian taiga regions have already become net sources of carbon emissions.”

The loss of biodiversity is another concern. “Excessively frequent fires lead to a simplification of the structure of forest landscapes, the loss of fire refugia, and a radical transformation of the historical dynamics of taiga ecosystems,” Yaroshenko said.

So far, this year’s fires haven’t been as bad as previous years, including 2012, which ripped through 18.1 million hectares (44.7 million acres) of forest across Russia, according to the ISDM-Rosleskhoz. But Yaroshenko says he expects this year’s fires will get even worse, adding that many “extinguished” fires are still active. “Most likely, it [2020] will enter the top five or even top three most burned years since the beginning of the century,” he said.

Flames from a fire in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.
Forest going up in flames in Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.

With fires becoming a yearly occurrence in Siberia, Grigory Kuksin, wildfire unit head at Greenpeace Russia, said that it’s paramount to take action to combat climate change.

“Russia’s sprawling Siberia region became a climate hotspot, heating up much faster than the rest of the planet,” Kuksin said in a statement. “This summer has already brought extreme heat waves, oil spills caused by thawing permafrost, and raging forest fires — what next before we finally act on climate?”

Banner image caption: A fire burning in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Image by Greenpeace International.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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