In the forests of Siberia, climate change fuels “zombie fires”

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Shipunovo (Russia) (AFP)

Equipped with a shovel, Grigory Kuksin lifts and transforms the scorching earth in the swampy glade of a vast Siberian forest.

With a small cohort of volunteer firefighters, he’s battling a winter-resistant underground fire, a growing problem in Russia that he calls a “climate bomb.”

“These are underground fires – zombie fires,” said Kuksin, 40, head of Greenpeace’s forest fire unit in Russia.

The vast bog topped with nettle and hemp surrounded by a thick pine forest is part of the Suzunsky Nature Reserve, located a two and a half hour drive 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 estimated.

Lying dormant one meter (three feet) below the earth’s surface, the fire survived the biting Siberian winters due to low groundwater levels – the result of regular droughts.

“But peat never ignites on its own. Man is always responsible, ”Kuksin said, suggesting that a badly smothered cigarette is enough to start a fire that will take years to die out.

After winter – when summer temperatures soar – fires can return from the dead, igniting dry grass on the surface and spreading over large areas.

“This is what happened last summer,” said Sergei Akopov, 60, one of the volunteer firefighters who tackled the blaze, saying he fought a forest fire that had erupted in the bog last year.

“We have seen foxes and hares flee from the flames,” said the trained lawyer who has repeatedly fought bog fires in recent years.

– Vicious circle –

Scientists say Siberia and the Arctic are particularly vulnerable to climate change and have recorded surprisingly high temperatures and worsening forest fires.

In June, the arctic city of Verkhoyansk recorded unprecedented temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius and around nine million hectares of forests – an area the size of Portugal – were affected by fires this year, officials said.

Peatland fires pose an additional threat to the climate due to the large amounts of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere.

“It’s a climate bomb,” Kuksin said.

He said it was a vicious cycle where fires aggravated by climate change release gases which in turn exacerbate climate change.

“We are fighting both the outcome of climate change and what is causing it,” he said.

The Nature website recently reported an alarming increase in the frequency of peatland fires in arctic areas, both in North America and in Russia.

– ‘Dirty work’ –

Peatlands are also often more complicated to extinguish than traditional forest fires.

“To extinguish a bog you have to flood it and mix the earth thoroughly until you get a liquid paste,” said Ekaterina Grudinina, 38, Greenpeace coordinator in Siberia and the Far East.

Nearby, volunteers soaked the ground with water pumped from a nearby swamp and sprayed it with two fire hoses.

After the earth is turned over and saturated, the temperature of the underground peat layer is measured. If the temperature is above 40 degrees, the process is repeated.

“It’s a dirty job,” said Alexander Sukhov, a 38-year-old farmer who set up the group of volunteers formed by Greenpeace last year.

The environmental group says its volunteers have to do the hard work without help from local emergency services who it says lack the skills and experience to put out peat fires.

“They claimed that this fire had not existed for five years,” Kuksin said.

After failing to convince local authorities to back his team of volunteers earlier this month, Kuksin appealed to a senior forest protection official in Moscow, bypassing protocol and “calling for”.

The local natural resources ministry told AFP it dispatched three vehicles and six men and they put out the fire after 24 hours.

Professional and volunteer firefighters have since left, said Kuksin, but he is convinced that below the surface “the bog continues to burn.”

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