Forest fires in Siberia are bigger than all the other fires in the world combined

There are two types of fires raging throughout Siberia in Russia: those that the authorities fight and others that they allow to burn.

This is because Siberia is so vast that huge fires can burn without threatening major population centers, transportation systems, or infrastructure, but are part of a whole swath of hellish fires that collectively outnumber all other fires in the world.

On the one hand, the Siberian fires are part of an annual cycle. But many climate experts see the staggering scale of this year’s fires as another sign of increased fire risk on a warming planet that may be getting even hotter because of the huge carbon emissions from the fires.

Russia is battling more than 170 wildfires in Siberia, which have led to airport and road closures, widespread evacuations and smoke in the North Pole. But it has left dozens of other fires covering thousands of square miles with no effort to fight them.

As Russia faces one of its worst fire seasons, environmentalists say the situation, which officials downplay every year, is not one to delay.

“For years, officials and opinion leaders have said that fires are normal, that the taiga is always burning, and there’s no need to make a big deal out of it. People are used to it,” says Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with Greenpeace Russia.

Taiga is a belt of coniferous forests around the planet 50-60 degrees north of the equator.

As Russia increasingly faces extreme weather related to climate change, the rapid spread of fires in Yakutia, a vast forested Siberian region about the size of Argentina, has been accompanied by drought, the hottest weather on record and strong winds.

The fires raging in Siberia have surpassed those in Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States and Canada combined, Yaroshenko said, and analysts have warned that this year could surpass Russia’s worst fire year ever, 2012.

Past wildfires in Siberia caused little or no stir in the Russian media. That’s slowly starting to change, Yaroshenko said. Nevertheless, many Russians are unaware of the risks of burning small areas in unstable conditions and are convinced that the big fires are the result of powerful criminals or corrupt officials covering up crimes – conspiracy theories for which there is little evidence.

About 7,000 firefighters, farm workers, soldiers and other rescue workers are battling wildfires that have scorched more than 62,300 square miles since the beginning of the year, according to Greenpeace. That’s an area nearly twice the size of Austria.

Local authorities say they are desperately short of volunteers and money to fight the fires.

At the same time, authorities allow the 66 fires to burn unimpeded because they are too difficult to fight or don’t threaten homes and economic infrastructure. These fires have scorched nearly 8,000 square miles – nearly 10 times more than the devastating Dixie Fire in California.

More than 100 fires in the United States this year have scorched 8,977 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In Canada, more than 13,000 square miles have burned this year in British Columbia and the Yukon, Manitoba and Ontario, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

In Turkey, the fires burned 681 square miles this year, according to the European Wildfire Information System. In Greece, the fire has burned 424 square miles, and in Italy, 403 square miles have burned, according to the organization.

According to Yaroshenko, about half of Russia’s forests remain unprotected by regional authorities, mostly due to insufficient funding for fire protection measures.

“These forests play a very important role in regulating the environment,” he said. “Most of the forests in unprotected areas are in the far north. They grow very slowly, they are very sensitive, and if they burn, the impact on the environment is enormous.”

Every year, hundreds of fires occur in the forests and plains of Russia. Greenpeace bases its data on statistics from Russian fire departments, which monitor fires.

However, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment only counts fires in forest reserves that threaten human settlements, not counting fires in the open steppe or on agricultural land. The ministry estimates the area covered by forest fires this year at just over 30,000 square kilometers, less than half the Greenpeace figure.

Despite this, Minister Alexander Kozlov last week called for a more than 100 percent increase in the firefighting budget, from $81 million to nearly $190 million.

Yaroshenko said the big problem is the reflexive, long-standing tendency of regional officials to gloss over local statistics to avoid trouble with their superiors in Moscow.

“Officials just lie about the scale, that is, they deliberately distort the data, because every official is responsible for making sure there is a pretty picture,” he said. “In general, it is no longer possible to hide fires, as everyone can see what is happening from satellite images, but the habit has remained, and they still sometimes try to hide these fires.”

Sergei Sivtsev, head of the region’s forestry department, told Kommersant newspaper that June weather in central Yakutia was the hottest since 1888.

But officials and state media minimize the problem – daily reports say how many fires have been extinguished or contained, not how many have burned. No attention is paid to the loss of vulnerable old-growth forests and no estimates of wildlife casualties, Yaroshenko said.

Aysen Nikolayev, head of the Yakutia region, said last week that climate change is the main cause of the fires.

“We are experiencing the hottest and driest summer in the history of meteorological measurements since the late 19th century,” he told RIA Novosti.

Smoke from the Siberian fires has covered more than 2 million square miles, spreading across the Arctic and the North Pole, according to satellite images from European atmospheric monitoring agency Copernicus.

Vladimir Leonov of the region’s Aerial Forest Service blamed lightning in the dry storms for triggering many of the fires.

Many people believe common conspiracy theories and rumors that corrupt officials and businessmen set the fires to cover up illegal logging. Yaroshenko said such cases are extremely rare. He said he knows of only two cases.

But misinformation meant that small farmers or villagers were unaware of the dangers of burning land to clear weeds. Many of them thought that burning dry grass promoted the growth of new grass.

“When people are convinced that the forest is being burned for criminal intent, it doesn’t occur to them to be careful themselves. And now ordinary people come to the forests and leave fires there that are not put out, and they don’t pay much attention to those fires anymore.”

Last year, Russian fires burned 4.7 billion trees, seven times more than were planted, according to a Greenpeace study using satellite imagery. In one month, Russian fires emitted as much carbon into the atmosphere as Sweden did in an entire year.

Russia is likely to have a drier, hotter summer, according to a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Monday. About a third of Siberia’s permafrost will melt by the end of the century, even if global carbon emissions fall sharply, the report said.

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