Iris de Graaf
Iris de Graaf
“Do not go outside, avoid unnecessary exposure to the toxic air.” Residents of Yakutsk, the capital of the Russian Republic of Sakha, hear this message every day. The emergency department again declared a state of emergency this summer in the ‘world’s coldest city’, just 450 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.
The republic, also known as Yakutia, has been hit by severe forest fires in the south and nearby Khabarovsk region for the fourth consecutive year. The fires spread over tens of thousands of hectares of forest and shrouded cities in black smoke and noxious fumes. People and animals are harmed every year by the extreme air pollution.
96 active fires
“Currently, there are about 96 active fires in an area of 500 square kilometers. Due to the strong winds of the past few days, the fire is spreading very quickly,” said Ajyl Doelurcha, a local ecologist and head of a volunteer firefighting organization.
We talk via Skype. The time is 8:00 in Moscow, 14:00 in Yakutsk. Doelurcha says they have put out about 300 fires since the start of this wildfire season. “The fires came back to the villages. People were scared and had to be evacuated.”
Last year, when a heat wave hit Yakutia, we traveled to the area. Doelurcha brought us as close as possible to the forest fires, the nearby villages and a camp full of volunteers trying to bring the fire under control. Those were intense days full of flames, poisonous smoke choking us, and swarms of mosquitoes in the swampy area. In total, an area of 9 million hectares of forest went up in flames, more than twice the size of the Netherlands. Greenpeace Russia talks about “an unprecedented record”.
You can see for yourself some of the special journey through the forest fire area in Yakutia in this vlog:
Russia’s coldest region is on fire
Fires in these remote areas of Russia are fought by volunteers from the local and indigenous communities. In the end, the army is often sent. Likewise in Yakutia. But this year, the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine.
So far, Doelurcha says he hasn’t noticed much about the army’s absence. In fact, the situation is a little better than last year, he says. “There will be more rain this summer, partly because the authorities are making artificial rain with planes.” This is done by adding huge amounts of crystals made of silver iodide to clouds. This technique is also used in Russia to keep it dry at important events.
According to Doelurcha, both local and national authorities have learned from “the tragedy that happened last year” and he sees more help and funding for firefighting. His team will be affected by the European sanctions. “Last year I was able to buy walkie-talkies for my volunteers. They are no longer available here.”
Still, residents of Yakutia do not fully trust the government in Moscow, some 6,000 kilometers away. “The government often doesn’t react quickly enough. And if we only rely on their promises or funding, the fire has long since started to spread. In the end, it remains a cost-benefit picture for the government.”
And so, in addition to his daily firefighting work, Doelurcha travels throughout the Republic of Sacha to collect donations and train new volunteers. “We teach them how to use the extinguishing materials, we distribute mobile fire extinguishers and we teach first aid. The sooner we intervene ourselves, the better.”
Permafrost continues to melt
Although the fires are less catastrophic this year, the damage is once again enormous. The consequences of this extend beyond Russia’s Far East.
“Many of the fires here burn for a long time, weeks or even months,” says Dulurcha. “As a result, the permafrost is thawing and releasing stored carbon and methane.” This in turn contributes to global warming, resulting in even more forest fires.
He believes that the whole world should make an effort to locate and extinguish the fires more quickly. “The Siberian forest and the permafrost are interdependent. When the trees burn, the ground melts, and when the ground becomes a swamp, the trees die. If this continues every year, we will all end up hitting the lungs of our land lost. .”