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article imageRussia declares a state of emergency over Siberian wildfires

By Karen Graham     Jul 31, 2019 in Environment
Russia has declared a state of emergency in five Siberian regions after wildfires engulfed an area of forest almost the size of Belgium amid record high temperatures as a result of the climate crisis.
According to officials, 2.7 million hectares of forest (about 10,400 square miles) were ablaze on Tuesday as soaring temperatures, lightning storms, and strong winds combined, sending smoke hundreds of miles to reach some of Russia's biggest regional cities.
"The smoke is horrible," pensioner Raisa Brovkina told state television after being hospitalized in Novosibirsk. "I am choking and dizzy," she added, according to Deutsche Welle.
The Russian Forestry Agency said the fires were triggered by dry thunderstorms in temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), along with strong winds. The thick, acrid smoke has not only affected small settlements but also major cities in Western Siberia and the Altai region as well as the Urals such as Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg, and disrupted air travel.
Copernicus Sentinel data shows a number of fires  producing plumes of smoke. The smoke has carried a...
Copernicus Sentinel data shows a number of fires, producing plumes of smoke. The smoke has carried air pollution into the Kemerovo, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Altai regions. (July 28, 2019)
European Space Agency
Transformed into an ecological disaster
The fires, which began earlier this month, coupled with the government's lackluster response, has environmentalists concerned over Moscow's commitment to addressing the climate crisis. The horrendous blazes have been allowed to spread as cash-strapped local authorities usually ignore fires in remote regions.
Pilots of specialized firefighting aircraft have spent days, prepared and waiting to be called up to assist in fighting the blazes, but no one has asked for help, said an emergency pilot in Krasnoyarski Krai.
"Every day the whole team and I are on duty. There are four aircraft," he said in an article published on Monday. "Since the beginning of the fires, not a single specialized [plane] has been lifted into the air. They say it is expensive to extinguish and if part of the forest burns down — it is not scary," the unnamed pilot said.
This satellite image was captured on July 23  2018. Actively burning areas (hot spots) are outlined ...
This satellite image was captured on July 23, 2018. Actively burning areas (hot spots) are outlined in red. Note the extent of the smoke.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS)
The number and extent of the fires this year are far worse than wildfires in the past, and besides affecting the health and economies of local towns and communities, environmentalists are fearful the fires may accelerate global warming.
"The forest fires in the eastern part of the country have long stopped being a local problem," the Russian branch of Greenpeace said in a statement, reports CBS News. "It has transformed into an ecological disaster with consequences for the entire country."
The World Meteorological Organization, in a statement, pointed out that "there is the added problem that soot falling on ice or snow melts and darkens it, thus reducing the reflectiveness of the surface and trapping more heat. This could have a significant impact on the Greenland ice sheet, exacerbating the melting already going on.
Julie @rebelyu
Greenpeace Russia expert Grigory Kuksin said, "It is comparable to the emissions of major cities. The more fires affect the climate, the more conditions are created for new dangerous fires."
The decision to declare the states of emergency on Wednesday came after two petitions attracted more than 1 million signatures demanding the government take action against the wildfires, which authorities previously dismissed as a natural occurrence, saying putting them out was not economically viable, according to the Financial Times.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sent his natural resources minister Dmitry Kobylkin to the affected regions on Tuesday.
"No settlements are currently ablaze and there have been no fatalities," said Kobylkin, who added: "The forecast of fire danger in the territory of [Siberia] is still unfavorable. There is a probability of exceeding the average values of temperatures in a number of territories of other federal districts."
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