In Siberia, an area the size of Saarland is already burning. The forest fire season has only just started. Some fear particularly devastating fires this year – due to climate change, but also because military firefighting assistance could be lacking due to the Ukraine war.
There has been a fire in Siberia for several weeks. And the forest fires seem to be spreading. In the Irkutsk region on Lake Baikal alone, 13 fires were raging on an area of around 700 hectares at the beginning of the month, as reported by the Interfax news agency, citing the region’s governor. According to a report in the “Spiegel”, there are now 270,000 hectares – which is roughly the size of Saarland. At least 16 people have died in the fires.
That there are big fires in Siberia in the summer months is not new or unusual. Due to the extreme drought, there are always devastating fires. However, climate change has intensified this effect in recent years.
In 2021, Russia reported a new sad record in terms of burned area with more than 18 million hectares. Forest fire expert Kirsten Thonicke from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) described the number as “very worrying”. It was also the third “extreme fire year” in a row. Otherwise, as much forest area as last year only burns down every ten to 15 years.
Experts do not expect any improvement for this summer – on the contrary. “The season of forest fire danger is getting longer, the droughts are more frequent, last longer and are more intense,” warns Alexei Yaroshenko to the “Tagesschau”. He is a forestry expert at Greenpeace and criticizes the lack of laws, money and personnel to protect the forests in Russia. The war of aggression against Ukraine could now exacerbate the fatal chain reaction. At least that’s the theory put forward by the geographer and scientist Jessica McCarty from Miami University in Ohio.
She explained to the American radio station “CBC” that many of the largest fires in Russia are usually fought with military personnel and military equipment. Due to the war, however, both are currently even scarcer than in previous years. The result: “You just let the fires continue to burn.” How long this can go well remains to be seen. With rising temperatures, the risk of forest fires will continue to increase in the coming months. “Either there will be more fire then… or the planes and personnel will be withdrawn from the western front and sent to Siberia,” the expert predicted to the “Axios” portal.
The portal also cites Amber Soya. She works at the Langley Research Center of the US space agency Nasa. The resources for firefighting were therefore scarce even before the war. Since the general male population and firefighters are no longer in Russia but are fighting in Ukraine, they have now further shrunk.
It has not been confirmed that no military aid is actually being sent because of the war, because the soldiers are needed at the front in Ukraine. As is typical of Russia’s military actions, there is no reliable information. The PIK researcher Thonicke also points this out in an interview with “Spiegel”. However, it is true that the military was sent to support the large forest fires in Russia last year. In addition, there are actually more fire sources than usual at the moment. The intensity of the fires has also increased.
The expert does not believe that this is only because of the weather. It is currently “a bit warmer and drier than usual”, but that alone cannot explain why such large areas are affected by the fires so early in the year.
Nevertheless, reasons other than the war in Ukraine are conceivable why firefighting aircraft may be used less at the moment. “If it’s too hot and there’s too much smoke, visibility is so poor that helicopters can’t take off for reasons of flight safety,” explains the expert at “Spiegel”.
Either way, the immense forest fires would have immense consequences not only in Russia. Fires of this magnitude release so many tons of CO2 that they are relevant to the climate. According to Thonicke, the forest in Siberia – the taiga – is one of the most important terrestrial carbon reservoirs and is crucial for a stable earth system. “And if the amount of emissions there grows, the task of reducing them worldwide becomes even greater.” That Russia gets the forest fires under control is not only in the interest of the country. Whether Putin is interested in it, however, is questionable .