Equipped with a shovel, Grigory Kuksin lifts and turns smoldering earth in the marshy clearing of a sprawling Siberian forest.
Together with a small cohort of volunteer firefighters, he is battling a winter-resistant, underground blaze, a growing problem in Russia that he calls a “climate bomb.”
“These are underground fires: zombie fires,” Greenpeace Russia Wildfire Unit head Grigory Kuksin, 40, said.
The vast bog topped with nettle and surrounded by a thick pine forest is part of the Suzunsky Nature Reserve, located a two-and-a-half-hour ride south of Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk.
Its soft surface is peat — a fuel formed by the slow decomposition of organic matter in humid environments — which has been smoldering for about five years, Kuksin said.
Lying dormant 1m beneath the Earth’s surface, the fire has survived biting Siberian winters because of low groundwater levels — a result of regular droughts.
“But peat never catches fire on its own. Man is always responsible,” Kuksin said, adding that a poorly stubbed out cigarette is enough to start a fire that would take years to extinguish.
After winter — when summer temperatures soar — the fires can return from the dead, igniting dry grass on the surface and spreading over large areas.
“That’s what happened last summer,” said 60-year-old Sergei Akopov, one of the volunteer firefighters tackling the blaze, adding that he battled a wildfire that sparked from the bog last year.
“We saw the foxes and hares running from the flames,” said the trained lawyer, who has repeatedly wrestled with bog fires over the past few years.
Scientists have said that Siberia and the Arctic are especially vulnerable to climate change, and have recorded startlingly high temperatures and worsening forest blazes.
In June, the Arctic city of Verkhoyansk recorded unprecedented temperatures of 38°C and about 9 million hectares of forest — an area the size of Portugal — have been affected by fires this year, officials said.
Peatland fires are an additional threat to the climate because of the large quantities of carbon dioxide that they release into the atmosphere.
“It’s a climate bomb,” Kuksin said, adding that it is a vicious circle, where fires made worse by climate change release gases that in turn exacerbate climate change.
Nearby, volunteers drenched the ground with water pumped from a nearby marsh and sprayed it with two fire hoses.
Once the earth is turned over and saturated, the temperature of the underground layer of peat is measured. If the temperature is above 40°C, the process is repeated.
“It’s a dirty job”, said Alexander Sukhov, a 38-year-old farmer who last year created the volunteer group that was trained by Greenpeace.
The environmental group says its volunteers are left to carry out the difficult work without help from local emergency services, which it says lacks the skills and experience to put out peat fires.
“They pretended this fire didn’t exist for five years,” Kuksin said.
The professional and volunteer firefighters have left, Kuksin said, but he is sure that beneath the surface, “the bog continues to burn.”
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