The Russian army on Tuesday sent firefighting planes to battle huge wildfires that have blanketed Siberian towns in thick smoke, as residents in a region known for its frozen tundra complain of being suffocated by a sweltering heat wave.
With flames tearing across about 800,000 hectares of Russian forest, the hardest-hit northern region of Yakutia has been in a state of emergency for weeks, as climate scientists sound the alarm about the potential long-term effects.
Last week, fires in Russia’s central Chelyabinsk region killed one man and destroyed dozens of village homes.
Photo: Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations/handout via Reuters
“We’re suffocating. Our lungs are being poisoned by acrid smoke,” reads one of two online petitions by Yakutia’s residents addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The residents are asking for more equipment and personnel to combat the fires.
Russia has seen its annual fire season become more ferocious in the past few years, as climate change has driven unusually high temperatures across the northern Siberian tundra.
This year, temperatures have hit new record highs.
“The fire risk has seriously flared up across practically the entire country because of the abnormal heat wave,” Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu told a meeting on Tuesday. “The most difficult situation is in Yakutia.”
On Tuesday, more than 2,600 firefighters were battling blazes in Yakutia, which has borne the brunt of huge forest fires over the past few years.
Putin ordered the Ministry of Defense to assist local authorities, while the army deployed several water-dropping Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft to douse the flames from the sky, Shoigu said, without specifying how many aircraft were sent.
The Siberian fires have raised fears about the permafrost and peatland thawing, releasing carbon long stored in the frozen tundra.
Meanwhile, ash from the fires could blanket nearby snow cover, turning it dark so that it absorbs more solar radiation and warms even faster.
In 2019 and last year, Yakutia’s wildfires led to record amounts of greenhouse gases being released from the region, said the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), which is part of an EU observation program.
In just the past six weeks, fires in the region have spewed out about 150 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent — close to the 2017 annual fossil-fuel emissions of Venezuela, CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington said.
“We’re still piecing together the information to try and understand what it means for the climate,” he said.
“This year, we haven’t yet seen so many fires within the Arctic Circle within that region, but just within the last three to four days we’ve started to see a number of hotspots occurring and a lot of smoke,” Parrington said.
While fires rage through forests, the country has struggled under a heat wave that has broken several temperature records in western Russia.
Moscow roasted at 33.1°C, its hottest June 13 in 85 years.
In Siberia, the city of Yakutsk hit 35°C at one point. The region’s city of Verkhoyansk — seen as one of the coldest places on Earth — saw temperatures of more than 30°C, the state weather forecast agency said.
“The temperature is really high, eight to 10 degrees higher than the norm,” the agency added.
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