Every morning and evening for the past few days, teams of young villagers have made their way to the taiga forest around Teryut with a seemingly impossible task: putting out the fires that have been raging closer and closer for a month, enveloping this remote village in eastern Siberia. in an acrid haze.
So far, not much has worked. In the midst of the worst forest fire season in memory, locals have vowed to defend their village to the last, sending small children out for their protection from the smog while they stay to fight the flames.
“For a month now, you can’t see anything through the smoke,” said Varvara, a 63-year-old retiree from Teryut, a village in Oymyakonsky district. “We have already sent the little children away. And the lights are very close, only 2km away [1.2 miles] of our village.
The extraordinary forest fires, which have already burned 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land in northeastern Siberia, have unleashed choking smog in Russia’s Yakutia region, where authorities have described this summer’s weather as the driest in 150 years. And that follows five years of hot summers, which villagers say have turned the surrounding forests and fields into powder kegs.
Varvara said their main hope is that this week will bring heavy rains to their region, which is located more than 400 miles from the city of Yakutsk through the mostly impassable taiga or snow-covered forest.
“The rescuers have come and the villagers are also fighting the fires but they cannot put them out, they cannot stop them,” she said by phone. “Everything is on fire. “
More than 50 settlements were covered in smog, which periodically interrupted operations at Yakutia’s main airport and disrupted river traffic.
The unprecedented scale of the fires prompted residents to join the auxiliary fire brigades.
“These are our homes, our forests and our people,” said Ivan Nikiforov, a resident of Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, who joined a volunteer fire brigade for the first time this year. “Our loved ones breathe smog. I couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
“It’s thick, yellow smoke,” Nikiforov said, describing the fires near Magaras, a village about 100 km from the capital Yakutsk. “I don’t know how the locals could take it. This will likely affect their health in the future. People are both depressed and angry. This situation should not have happened. “
Grigory Mochkin, who runs several Crossfit gyms in Yakutsk, said he has spent the last few days volunteering to build fire breaks and help set up controlled burns to try and stop the spread of the flames.
“The fires have touched absolutely the life of every person in Yakutia,” Mochkin said. “The fires are very important this year. And since the smoke arrived in Yakutsk, people are making their voices heard on social media because everyone’s life has been affected. In recent years, smog has covered the city for at most a day.
Smoke has been considered to be a health hazard for young children and the elderly in particular. “It’s like standing next to a campfire,” said Aytalina, a 26-year-old from Yakutsk. “This year you open a window and the stench fills the room. People feel very bad. “
The suffocating smog has been hanging over the city of more than 280,000 inhabitants for days, where residents have been warned to stay at home. “The level of air pollution has dropped [on Monday] for three hours thanks to the wind, ”Aytalina said. “We went to the store for 15 minutes to buy groceries. It was the first time we had left the apartment since [Friday]. «
Locals blamed various factors for the fires, from the climate crisis to poor government preparation, a ban on purging dry grass, budget cuts to forestry services, suspected arson and, in particular, the hot summers.
“There have never been summers with such massive fires,” said Nikolai Verkhovov, from Srednekolymsk, a village on the Kolyma River more than 750 miles from Yakutsk. “But last year a village in my district was almost set on fire. He suggested that budget cuts in ranger services and corruption could play a role in the fires.
“In Yakutsk itself, the fire season has grown exponentially since 2018,” he said. “This year has been incredibly horrible. Huge parts of the forest are on fire. It’s so smoky it’s hard to breathe and your eyes are crying.
Many of those contacted sent screenshots of IQAir, an air quality app which showed that the concentration of pollutants in the air in downtown Yakutsk was so high that it was accompanied by ‘an icon depicting a man wearing a gas mask and the description “in danger of death”.
Some people from Yakutsk have sought to leave the area during the forest fire season or have considered emigrating permanently. A young woman said that upon getting off a flight to Moscow from Yakutsk, she realized that her hair and clothes reeked of smoke.
Others fear for those at risk in the region.
“Here in Yakutsk I have many elderly parents, we are all worried about them,” Verkhovov said. “Some are also sick with the coronavirus. My aunt was hospitalized for a month, she finally managed to lower her temperature and the smoke only made matters worse and slowed her recovery.