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Why Do Siberian Forests Keep Burning?
13 August, 2019
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A wildfire in a forest in Russia's Krasnoyarsk region, Siberia, on August 1, 2019. EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN FEDERATION SERVICE AVIATION FOREST PROTECTION
Weeks have passed since the Siberian wildfires began, phone calls have been made and positions have been switched, but the fires keep burning.

On August 12, the Russian branch of Greenpeace announced that this year is setting records for area covered by wildfires. 200 million tons of carbon emissions will permeate the air and be inhaled by Siberians, according to Evgenii Ponomarev from the Sukachev Institute of Forests in Krasnoyarsk.

According to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, 5 million square kilometers, more than the size of the European Union, have been covered with smoke clouds. 

For weeks wildfires had spread to 2.6 million hectares. On one side smoke extended as far as Moscow and on the other, it reached Seattle, Washington, 8,000 kilometers away.

Many locals and international experts criticized the slow reaction of the government. It was only after a petition on change.com, instigated by an ecologist from the Siberian city of Tomsk accumulated over half a million signatures, did authorities switch positions.

"The authorities do not care about the fires, do not care about the people in the Krasnoyarsk region choking with smog and smoke that kills thousands of animals,” Victoria Pikaleva, a local, told Hromadske.

On July 31, Russia announced a state of emergency, but two days before, opinions were vastly different. “Pointless and maybe even harmful,” is how the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Alexander Uss described his position in taking action to extinguish the wildfires. 

But before the President of Russia had issued a state of emergency, the Aerial Forest Protection agency had scarce resources. During this time the first Moscow protests were taking place. Hromadske's interlocutor who attended the protests claimed that members of the National Guard had been shipped to Moscow from Siberia, a 4,000 kilometer journey, in order to contain the protesters. 

READ MORE: Hundreds Detained During Moscow Protests Calling For Fair Elections

Hromadske reached out to Russian authorities for a comment but at the time of publication did not receive a response.

Boreal forests, the forests burning in Siberia, and their contribution to carbon cycles and related greenhouse effects are critical and perhaps the most important element of stability, Ponomarev explains. According to 25 years of satellite monitoring, Siberia should expect a steady wildfire growth trend and the contribution of fires to carbon emissions will, likewise, continue to grow.

 A wildfire in a forest in Russia's Krasnoyarsk region, Siberia, on August 1, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN FEDERATION SERVICE AVIATION FOREST PROTECTION

The spokesperson of Russia's Prosecutor General, Alexander Kurennoy, told Russian RIA Novosti publication that many of the fires appear to have been started by people trying to conceal illegal logging activity. This refers to using illegal methods in order to harvest, transport and purchase or sell timber. 

Chinese and Russians are fighting for Siberian timber resources. According to the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russia’s Siberia and Far East regions are the largest timber exporters to China. In China, logging is only permitted at a limited scale in an attempt to build “green cities.” And illegal methods are not uncommon in order to attain timber. 

Whether or not some of the Siberian forests burning began in order to conceal illegal acquisition of timber, there is no going back, and millions of hectares will be cleared. So what happens next? 

According to Herbert Prins, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a fire can make it easier to put in a land claim to start agriculture practices. It takes about four years for weeds to turn up, saving farmers a significant hassle. Fire management has been used for centuries in order to clear bush for agriculture. However, the extent of these wildfires has created the conditions for a continuous feedback cycle.

“Massive fires contribute to the further formation of conditions for continued burning. There are no low pressure systems, they squeeze into the periphery of the high pressure system and bypass the fire zone, as it is, around the circumference and precipitation does not fall,” Ponamarev explained.

A wildfire in a forest in Russia's Krasnoyarsk region, Siberia, on August 1, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN FEDERATION SERVICE AVIATION FOREST PROTECTION

Meaning, waiting for sufficient rain with such a state can be a hopeless perspective. Meanwhile, conditions for wildfires will continue to be present. July was the hottest month ever recorded globally, and fires spread in record numbers. Activists continue to advocate for stronger measures to be taken, and it seems like Russian authorities may start to listen.

/By Allison Martinez-Cortes