Siberian Wildfires Prompt Russia to Declare a State of Emergency

Temperatures that have been soaring with climate change combined with lightning and winds to burn vast areas of forest and send smoke hundreds of miles into cities.

Volunteers fought a wildfire near a summer camp for children in Siberia in late May. Credit: Kirill Shipitsin\TASS via Getty Images

Volunteers fought a wildfire near a summer camp for children in Siberia in late May. With rising temperatures, wildfires have also broken out in Alaska and across the northern boreal forests this year. Credit: Kirill Shipitsin\TASS via Getty Images

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Russia has declared a state of emergency in five Siberian regions after wildfires engulfed an area of forest almost the size of Belgium amid record high temperatures as a result of climate change.

Officials said 2.7 million hectares of forest (about 10,400 square miles) were ablaze on Tuesday as soaring temperatures, lightning storms and strong winds combined, sending smoke hundreds of miles to reach some of Russia's biggest regional cities.

The fires, which began earlier this month, and the Russian government's lacklustre response have raised concerns over Moscow's commitment to addressing climate change. The country relies heavily on the oil and gas industry and has a poor record of enforcing green initiatives.

The decision to declare the states of emergency on Wednesday came after two petitions attracted more than 1 million signatures demanding the government take action against the wildfires, which authorities previously dismissed as a natural occurrence, saying putting them out was not economically viable.

"The role of fires [in climate change] is underestimated. Most of the fires are man-made," Grigory Kuksin, head of the fire protection department at Greenpeace Russia, told the Financial Times. "Given the changing climate, this has led to the fire acreage expanding quickly, and the smoke spreading wider."

Rising Temperatures Put Forests at Risk

Environmental groups worry that in addition to the destruction of carbon-absorbing forest, the carbon dioxide, smoke and soot released will accelerate temperature increases that are already melting permafrost in northern Russia. An estimated 12 million hectares of Russian forest has burned this year.

Temperatures in Siberia last month were as much as 8 degrees Celsius (14°F) above long-term averages and hit all-time records in some areas, according to data from Russia's state meteorological agency.

"This is a common natural phenomenon, to fight with it is meaningless, and indeed sometimes, perhaps even harmful," Alexander Uss, governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, said Monday. "Now, if a snowstorm occurs in winter ... it does not occur to anyone to drown icebergs so that we have a warmer weather."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sent his natural resources minister Dmitry Kobylkin to the affected regions on Tuesday amid reports that smoke from the fires has spread as far north as the Arctic Circle and south to Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city.

"No settlements are currently ablaze and there have been no fatalities," said Kobylkin, who added: "The forecast of fire danger in the territory of [Siberia] is still unfavorable. There is a probability of exceeding the average values of temperatures in a number of territories of other federal districts." 

Petitions Call for More Preventive Action

Greenpeace said it planned to submit a petition with more than 200,000 signatures to President Vladimir Putin's administration on Thursday demanding better response to wildfires and more preventive action. A separate petition on the website Change.org has attracted more than 800,000 signatures.

"Smoke going north-east, as it normally does, is very dangerous as it leads to ice melting, permafrost shrinking and those areas emitting methane," said Kuksin.

"This time the smoke went westward, affecting large cities," he added. "[But] still no one was going to put them out, and that led to public outcry at the injustice because whenever there is even a small fire near Moscow, it gets put out immediately not to allow any trace of smoke to reach the capital."

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