Siberian wildfires burn over 1.5 million hectares of forest as smoke and heatwave choke ‘world’s coldest city’

Average temperatures have risen up to 10C above normal, as region experiences second terrible wildfire year in a row

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Tuesday 20 July 2021 23:37
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Wildfires spread across Siberia

The biggest and coldest region in Russia’s Siberia, Yakutia, is grappling with a third straight month of high temperatures accompanied by devastating wildfires which have now burnt more than 1.5 million hectares of forest.

In recent weeks average temperatures have soared up to 10C above average, while residents of the region’s largest city, Yakustsk – sometimes known as the world’s coldest city – have been asked to stay indoors with their windows closed as they endure heat and thick smog which has blanketed the city, bringing roads to a standstill and is causing respiratory issues.

Enormous plumes of smoke from the extensive fires is impacting 51 towns, settlements and cities in the region, and in Yakutsk, the smog forced the closure of the city’s airport, with all flights in and out of the city suspended.

Many people have said they are struggling to breathe, and have complained of headaches and sore throats, according to The Siberian Times.

The ex-mayor of the city, Sardana Avksentyeva, shared an alarming video of people walking ahead of cars on main roads in order to help drivers navigate through the dense smog.

Firefighters are currently working to put out 92 forest fires across 16 districts of Yakutia, and so far just five of them have been localised, according to an update from Russia’s state-run Tass news agency on Tuesday.

Military aircraft will also be involved in firefighting efforts across three districts of Yakutia, the republic’s first deputy prime minister, Dmitry Sadovnikov, said.

“Three helicopters of the Russian defense ministry will work in the Nyurbinsky, Lensky, and Suntarsky districts,” he said.

A total of around 123 fires are believed to currently be burning over an area of more than 885,000 hectares, the region’s environment and forest ministry said.

Yakutia is one of Russia’s most fire-prone regions, with 83.4 per cent of the territory covered by forests, amounting to 265 million hectares. Last year wildfires consumed an area of more than six million hectares.

Since the beginning of June, the fires in the region have spewed out around 150 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – nearing the total 2017 greenhouse gas emissions of Venezuela, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS).

“The evolution in fire activity in the Arctic this summer has so far been very similar to what we saw in 2019, with both years exhibiting extraordinarily intense wildfires compared to other years since 2003 that we have data for,” said CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington.

“Whilst both years have been very unusual, this year we have been seeing some more fire activity further east in Siberia.”

A state of emergency  has been in force in the region since 1 July.

The heatwave across Siberia comes as extreme weather has gripped other parts of the world, raising international concerns about the role of the climate crisis in exacerbating the impacts of disasters.

In recent weeks destructive fires have swept across large areas of California and Canada amid heatwaves, and severe flooding across Europe has left over 180 people dead.

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