Russia has declared a state of emergency in four Siberian regions and dispatched the military to help in firefighting efforts after wildfires engulfed an area of forest the size of Belgium amid record high temperatures.
Officials said 3m hectares of forest were ablaze on Wednesday as soaring temperatures, lightning storms and strong winds combined, sending smoke hundreds of miles to reach some of Russia’s biggest regional cities.
The Russian government’s lacklustre response to tackling the fires, which began weeks ago, has raised concerns over Moscow’s commitment to addressing climate change. The country relies heavily on the oil and gas industry and has a poor record of enforcing green initiatives.
The decision to declare the state of emergency came after two petitions attracted more than 1m signatures demanding the government take action. President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered Russia’s armed forces to join the firefighting effort.
Local authorities have previously dismissed the wildfire as a natural occurrence, saying putting them out was not economically viable.
“This is a common natural phenomenon, to fight with it is meaningless, and indeed sometimes, perhaps even harmful,” Alexander Uss, governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, said on Monday. “Now, if a snowstorm occurs in winter . . . it does not occur to anyone to drown icebergs so that we have a warmer weather.”
Environmental groups worry that in addition to the destruction of carbon-absorbing forest, the carbon dioxide, smoke and soot released will accelerate temperature increases that are already melting permafrost in northern Russia. An estimated 12m hectares of Russian forest have been destroyed by fire this year.
“The role of fires [in climate change] is underestimated. Most of the fires are man-made,” Grigory Kuksin, head of the fire protection department at Greenpeace Russia, told the Financial Times. “Given the changing climate, this has led to the fire acreage expanding quickly, and the smoke spreading wider.”
Mr Putin has backed the global Paris Agreement to tackle climate change but has also warned against “absolutism” and “blind faith” in green energy. Last month he said wind turbines “make worms come out of the ground”, a claim with no scientific proof.
Russia is the world’s third-largest oil producer and has sought to exploit shrinking ice caps in the Arctic to drill for more hydrocarbons, expand its military footprint and develop shipping lanes from Europe to China.
Temperatures in Siberia last month were as much as 8C above long-term averages and hit all-time records in some areas, according to data from Russia’s state meteorological agency.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev sent his natural resources minister Dmitry Kobylkin to the affected regions on Tuesday amid reports that smoke from the fires has spread as far north as the Arctic Circle and south to Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city.
“No settlements are currently ablaze and there have been no fatalities,” said Mr Kobylkin. “The forecast of fire danger in the territory of [Siberia] is still unfavourable. There is a probability of exceeding the average values of temperatures in a number of territories of other federal districts.”
Greenpeace plans to submit a petition with more than 200,000 signatures to Mr Putin’s administration on Thursday demanding better response to wildfires and more preventive action. A separate petition on the website Change.org has attracted more than 800,000 signatures.
“Smoke going north-east, as it normally does, is very dangerous as it leads to ice melting, permafrost shrinking and those areas emitting methane,” said Greenpeace’s Mr Kuksin.
“This time the smoke went westward, affecting large cities,” he added. “[But] still no one was going to put them out, and that led to public outcry at the injustice because whenever there is even a small fire near Moscow, it gets put out immediately, not to allow any trace of smoke to reach the capital.”
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