Russian wildfire smoke reaches North Pole for first time

More than 1,200 towns and villages have been impacted by the fires

Oliver Carroll
Moscow Correspondent
Monday 09 August 2021 18:48
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Wildfires endanger several villages in Siberia

Smoke from Russia’s wildfires has reached the North Pole for the first time since records began, with activists warning the situation is unlikely to improve before the second half of August.

Satellite images released by US space agency Nasa show pockets of dark grey smoke drifting about two thousand miles away from their origin in Yakutia, in Russia’s far east.

The smoke has covered a broad area from northern Siberia to Mongolia, with 1,200 towns and villages affected in Krasnoyarsk Krai alone.

The centre of the blaze, Yakutia, is currently experiencing the worst forest fires in its history, with nearly four million hectares still burning. One blaze covers an area as much as 1 million. hectares, also a record.

Experts say the situation will get worse over the forthcoming days, as a strong wind and dry weather take hold. The hope is that late August rain could bring respite — but none of that is certain.

Grigory Kuskin, who heads Greenpeace Russia’s firefighting department, told The Independent the situation in Yakutia in particular is progressing according to a worst-case scenario. A number of new villages and oil storage facilities are at risk, he says.

On Monday, the local Yakutia administration extended a state of emergency as blazes began to encroach new populated localities in the region.

Three dozen homes were reported destroyed in Byas-Kyuyol, a rural locality 100 miles from regional capital Yakutsk.

Vladimir Putin, who inspected firefighting efforts in the Chelyabinsk region last week, has ordered the government to loosen budget strings during the emergency. Regional governments have long complained about underfunding of fire-fighting services, with Yakutia in particular claiming it had only received one tenth of what it requested.

Smoke from forest fires is see over small town of Kysyl-Syr

Mr Kuskin says officials appear to recognise the warnings presented by this year’s fires. In comments to the press, the president himself acknowledged a direct link to climate change, and ordered the prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, to find more cash for emergency relief efforts.

"There is finally an understanding that climate change is creating real dangers and that the old approach is not working," Greenpeace’s Kuskin told The Independent.

A key question ahead of climate change negotiations is whether Russia will embrace tactics preferred by the United States and Australia, which allows controlled wood fires, or that of neighbouring Finland, which looks to reduce them to zero.

"Officials may take the view that the cheapest option is best, but it’s the wrong approach given the current climate shifts," Mr Kuskin said.

"Remember, Finland was once part of the Russian empire and it used to burn like we are burning now. Finland isn’t burning. I want us to be like Finland."

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