Fires are burning in Siberia, but Russian invasion could strain firefighting resources

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Fires are breaking out in Siberia this spring, sending smoke across the western United States that has tinted the sky pink.

Some experts worry that Russia has sufficient military resources to put out the fires, especially as fire activity increases in the summer, given its invasion of Ukraine.

This month, forest fires have already appeared in the bogs of the Russian Far East, activating firefighting services. Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency said it extinguished more than 600 fires on 37,000 hectares (about 91,000 acres) across the country last week.

Omsk Oblast was one of the regions with the highest number of extinguished forest fires. Videos from the Siberian Times showed wildfires raging in Omsk and Tyumen oblasts in western Siberia, while satellite data showed multiple fires across the landscape. Some of the fires have been burning for more than a week, even though the lakes are still appear frozen.

Smoke from the fires has traveled thousands of miles, reaching the western United States. People have noticed hazier skies, smokier sunsets and reddish tints on the moon—characteristics typically seen during the height of the summer fire season.

The National Weather Service office in Tucson released a Twitter feed tracing the origin of the smoke, which revealed dozens of hot spots detected by satellites on Russia. Smoke from a particularly large fire wrapped in a storm system which crossed the Pacific Ocean and reached the west coast on Saturday. The weather service too wrote that some of the smoke reaching the west coast came from Mongolia and China, while dust from the Gobi Desert could have been mixed in with the smoke.

Fire activity in Siberia has resumed spring in recent years. Forest fires occurred in these oblasts around the same time in 2020. Fires started in late April last year, although the largest groups started burning in the Sahka region of Russian Far East, early May.

“The data shows that the fires occur during the spring fire season, but there were a high number of fires and the intensity/total daily emissions were well above average for the early stages of the season. “Said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, wrote in an email.

At a press conference on Thursday, Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency said firefighters are ready and will work on high alert to manage and prevent blazes in the coming weeks. Agency chief Ivan Sovetnikov said around 90% of spring forest fires are associated with human activities – fires that spread to forests from other lands, are caused by illegal agricultural burning or are the result of negligence. The agency will deploy helicopters, drones and even artificial precipitation.

But some believe the invasion of Ukraine could drain Russia’s firefighting resources, with many personnel and equipment deployed in the war. In recent years, as the fires intensified as summer approached, the Russian military often assisted firefighters. Helicopters and planes can drop water on the fires, while thousands of ground troops wade through the swamps and intense heat to put out the fires.

“There’s no question that Ukraine has been a huge drain on Russia’s land resources,” said Col. Mark Cancian, senior adviser to the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They moved a lot of troops out of the country. All returning troops are pretty beaten up. It will be harder to fight the fires.

Even without war, many large fires are allowed to burn if they do not threaten major settlements due to insufficient funding for firefighters.

Without proper firefighting resources, wildfires go unchecked and can spread out of control, including on the carbon-rich soils of Siberia. Much of the soil is composed of organic matter hundreds of years to millennia old, with large amounts of carbon buried deep in permafrost. The fires can burn deep into the melting ground, releasing large amounts of carbon and methane into the atmosphere.

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The fires too release particles that can harm human health and the environment. For example, carbon black can enter the lungs of people and animals and cause disease. It can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. The particles can also absorb sunlight and heat the ground below, potentially worsening fire conditions in the area.

Although it is too early to project the intensity of wildfire activity this spring and summer, rising global temperatures have intensified fire seasons and will likely continue to do so. Studies show that the number of forest fires and the size of the burned area have increased in Siberia in recent decades, correlating with air temperatures and drought. Computer models also show that rising global temperatures will dry out vegetation in the region, increasing the annual number of fire danger days and large fires, particularly in southern Siberia and Sakha in the Far East.

Recent years have highlighted this threat. At one point last year, the fires in Siberia were bigger than all the other fires in the world combined. From June 1 to August 1, the fires emitted a record amount of carbon for Sakha.

Wildfires in Siberia are bigger than all the other fires in the world combined

A European Commission report classified carbon emissions from last year arctic wildfires the fourth highest in nearly two decades. These levels were considered “normal” compared to the historically active seasons of 2019 and 2020, said parringtonnoting that those years had higher fire activity across the Arctic Circle than in 2021, but not necessarily in Sakha.

“It’s hard to say if this indicates what we can expect for the summer – I expect there will be fires in the more eastern parts of Siberia, and possibly in the Arctic, during the summer,” Parrington wrote. “Fire danger is likely to be high due to weather anomalies (i.e. hotter and drier conditions) over the past few years and months. Locations and duration will depend on weather conditions. weather conditions, however.