Siberia battles forest fires after hottest, driest June in 133 years – releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere

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Siberia battles forest fires after hottest, driest June in 133 years – releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere


The city of Yakutsk is shrouded in gray fog, as if draped in a shawl.

This is the smoke of forest fires that we saw from the plane on the way, spiraling upward from the vast expanse of Siberian coniferous forest or taiga.

Our taxi driver advises us to come back in winter.

Less than 50C (-58F) is infinitely better than smoke, he says confidently.

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Pavel Petrov spent two or three days without sleep while fighting the flames. Photo: Anastasya Leonova

Siberia has always had a wildfire season, but the past two years have been particularly intense. June in the Yakutia region was the hottest and driest month since 1888.

The climate is continental – plus 30C (86F) in summer and flooded with mosquitoes, then down to minus 70C (-94F) in some areas during winter. This year, the thermometer in Yakutia’s Gorny district hit 39 ° C (102 ° F), with just 2mm of precipitation all month.

In the forests around Magaras in the Gorny district, there is a group of volunteers or firefighters seemingly on every corner and in every clearing, preparing for the next challenge over a soup and a cup of tea. . The taiga is smoldering. Smoke is a constant.

They dug trenches and set up what they call reverse fires – controlled flames to burn through the undergrowth so wildfires have nothing to feed when they strike.

Pavel Petrov of the Forest Protection Air Service worked tirelessly to coordinate local efforts to fight the fires.

He says there were a couple of days he didn’t sleep at all. In last year’s forest fires, he didn’t sleep for a week.

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During the past two years, the forest fire season in Siberia has been particularly intense

“We have a bog here and the forest is dense – that’s why the fires have spread so quickly,” he explained.

“Strong crown fires [which spread from treetop to treetop] you cannot reverse. It’s too dangerous and you could make it worse. We try to fight them at night when they weaken. When they do, we dig a trench about a mile away and start the reverse fire. This is the only way to stop a mighty crown fire. “

Every fire needs its own localized strategy and a dedicated team of firefighters. With an active area of ​​just over 2,000 hectares in Yakutia alone, this is a major challenge. Many forest fires in Russia burn on the taiga too far to reach. They are only fought if human dwellings are threatened and the teams can reach them.

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Huge amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere
"Reverse lights"  are ready to try to control the flames
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“Reverse fires” are set up to try to control the flames

It saves lives but not the planet. Wildfires that burn uncontrollably release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, destroying forests that would otherwise serve as carbon sinks.

They also heat the permafrost – or permanently frozen ground – below the ground, which in turn releases greenhouse gases. These forest fires are mainly triggered by lightning during dry thunderstorms. In one day this year, Petrov said he saw eight lightning-triggered fires.

Andreï Pykhtine and his brigade.  Photo: Anastasya Leonova
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Andreï Pykhtin Brigade

In a clearing in front of a large area of ​​burnt forest, we meet a truck full of moving men. Their unit leader, Andrei Pykhtin, pulls out his phone to show the massive fire his team faced the day before.

“You should have come then,” he said proudly.

I ask one of his big firefighters if that was scary. ” Of course! ” he says.

Mr Pykhtin wants to know why we are interested in forest fires in Russia. He fears that, as the Western media, we are denigrating Russia’s firefighting efforts.

“How does what we do compare to how they do it in the United States? ” he asks.

We explain that we are interested in changes in our climate and their impact.

Pavel Petrov observes: “We are damaging Mother Nature ourselves. [and] we have to deal with these issues ourselves. ”

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