The small domed tents of volunteer firefighters in a Siberian forest clearing can be difficult to see, even just a few steps away, due to suffocating smoke. Their shovels and saws appear to be tiny tools against the vast fire, like toy weapons brought to war.
But his love for the vast and wild region is a powerful motivator in a summer of mounting fires that could become the worst in Russian history.
As of Monday, about 1.88 million hectares (4.6 million acres) of forest were burning in Russia, an area larger than the US state of Connecticut.
More than 5,000 regular firefighters are involved, but the scale is so large and the area so huge that 55% of the fires are not being fought at all, according to Avialesookhrana, the agency that oversees the effort.
That means volunteers, who take time off work and rely on their own money or non-government funds, are a small but important addition to the overwhelmed forces.
“The guys (volunteers) are doing a great job. Their help is significant because the area and distances are quite large, so the more people there are, the more effective our efforts are to control the fires, “said Denis Markov, an instructor at a base for paratroopers firefighters in Tomsk, who is working with some of the volunteers.
The worst affected area is the Republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutia, in the extreme northeast of Russia, some 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all fires in Russia are in the republic, and dense smoke forced the airport in the regional capital Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 residents, to temporarily shut down.
As the smoke intensified, Ivan Nikiforov said goodbye to his office job in the city, not to escape the bad air, but to head to the fires as a volunteer.
“I think it is important to participate as a volunteer because our republic, our shared land and our forests are burning. This is what we will leave for our children and our grandchildren, “he said at his group’s camp in the Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk.
Nikiforov and a small contingent of other volunteers cut trenches, fell trees and lit small controlled fires to try to block the spread.
Volunteers in the area received support from the non-governmental agency Sinet-Spark, which provided them with sleeping bags, gloves and heavy equipment. Alexandra Kozulina, the group’s project director, said Sinet-Spark had initially planned to spend its money on information campaigns, but decided to provide equipment as the fires worsened.
“I also think that our government should be doing this. I do not understand why it is not happening, if there is not enough money because budgets were cut or for some other reason, but we are doing what is in our power, “he said.
The main problem, many observers say, is that the size of the aerial forest protection agency has been reduced, along with the number of rangers.
“I can personally remember how each district had a branch of Avialesookhrana with 15-20 paratroopers. They were constantly making observation flights and putting out fires as soon as they started,” said Fedot Tumusov, a Russian member of the Sakha parliament.
Changes in 2007 that reduced the number of forest rangers also gave control over forest lands to regional authorities and companies, eroding centralized monitoring, fueling corruption, and contributing to illegal logging practices that help start fires.
Critics also say the law allows authorities to allow fires to burn in certain areas if the potential damage is deemed not worth the cost of containing them. They say this encourages inaction by authorities and slows down firefighting efforts, which is why a fire that could have been extinguished at relatively little cost is often allowed to burn out of control.
This year’s fires in Siberia have already emitted more carbon than in some previous years, according to Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
He said that the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other Russian regions are particularly damaging in terms of emissions because the peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.
“So you’re releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere,” Parrington said.
While pledging to abide by the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often underscore the key role the country’s forests play in slowing global warming. However, regular fires have the opposite effect, dramatically increasing carbon emissions.
“Everyone emphasizes that we have huge forests, but no one has so far calculated how much our wildfires contribute to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.
It is too early to say whether this year’s fires will reach a record scale, Kreindlin says, noting that the situation in Siberia has been particularly difficult for the past three years. What sets 2021 apart is that Karelia, a small region in northwestern Russia on the border with Finland, has also been engulfed by devastating and unprecedented fires.
As of Monday, Karelia was among the top three regions affected by the fires, according to Avialesookhrana, with 22 of them still active on more than 11,000 hectares (27,180 acres).
“The fact that Karelia caught fire so unexpectedly – there were fires there before, but there haven’t been such massive fires there in many years – shows that overall, the situation with fires in the country is extremely difficult and bad. controlled, “Kreindlin said.
Volunteers have also helped in Karelia. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator of the Society of Voluntary Forest Firefighters that focuses on Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the fires there this year are the largest since 2008.
As of July 20, the group counted 32 fires in the national park throughout the summer. “And it’s only been the middle of the summer, so it’s an absolute record for all these years,” Gorbunova said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism