Wildfires in Russia 101
August 29, 2022
As climate change heats the planet, countries all over the world are facing increased risks from wildfires. With more forested land than any other country, this is especially true for Russia. This explainer gives an overview of the context and consequences of the wildfires in Russia today.
Map of Siberian wildfires, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons

Russia is home to more than 20% of the world’s forest area. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Russia’s boreal forests, known as the taiga, represent the largest forested region on earth (around 12 mln km2) – larger than the Amazon. Each year, Russia loses millions of hectares of this forest due to fires. As the earth’s climate changes, wildfire seasons around the world are growing longer. Scientists say that huge fires in Russia have been made possible by the extraordinary summer heat in recent years in northern Siberia, which has been warming faster than any other part of the world. The fires could accelerate climate change by releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gasses and destroying Russia’s vast boreal forests, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Wildfire trends

Russia experiences two peaks in wildfire activity each year. The first occurs at the end of April and beginning of May, and the second in late July and August. During the first peak, it is open spaces around populated areas that most often catch fire. The second peak usually takes place in Siberia and Russia’s Far East. Both peaks are of approximately the same scale, which is estimated by the number of “thermal spots,” or wildfires visible from satellite data.

Climate scientists, environmentalists and even Vladimir Putin all agree that climate change is the main reason why wildfires in Russia have become increasingly destructive. During last year’s brutal summer, the country experienced its worst wildfire season on record. These wildfires destroyed more than 18.16 mln hectares of forest, more than any other year since the country began satellite monitoring in 2001. The taiga forests of Siberia pumped 970 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere between June and August 2021 – more than all the forests across the rest of the world put together.

Compared to the 2021 season, wildfires have so far been less intense this year. However, as the head of Greenpeace Russia’s wildfire division Grigory Kuksin told Russia.Post, “this has nothing to do with any actions by the government. It’s just the weather.” In the coming years, as spells of excessive heat become more frequent, wildfires will remain a pressing issue. “We don’t see any positive changes happening. So the situation will probably get worse with each year since climate change is working against us,” says Kuksin.

Causes of wildfires

According to Greenpeace Russia, in most cases wildfires occur due to the use of fire to remove dry grass, as well as the burning of garbage by people residing in small towns and villages. Official government statistics show that nine out of 10 wildfires in the country are caused by humans. Likewise, in Russia preventative burning and fire clearing are traditionally practiced in agriculture and forestry, which increases the probability of large forest fire outbreaks. In fact, the government incentivizes citizens to burn dry grass by threatening heavy fines for young forest, weeds or dry grass left out on agricultural land. This forces landowners to clear their property in the easiest and cheapest way possible – with fire. “We use old, outdated technologies and practices in agriculture. We need to make changes in laws, in regulating economic activity,” says Kuksin. Although humans are often the main culprit in wildfires, hot and dry weather made worse by climate change creates greater potential for fires to grow larger and become more difficult to manage.
Chelyabinsk oblast', 2022. Source: VK
Who puts out wildfires?

Responsibility for wildfire management in Russia depends on where the fire is located. There is territory known as the Forest Fund, which represents all forested land under the control of the federal government. Most of the Forest Fund is managed by Rosleskhoz, Russia’s Federal Agency for Forestry, which maintains a fleet of aircraft and employs about 2,000 wildfire responders. However, putting out wildfires is largely the responsibility of regional authorities. The federal government allocates funds to regions in the form of subventions, as well as from the environment national project. When wildfires reach a major scale, additional federal funding can be unlocked. In 2022, the Russian government allocated R14 bln to fighting wildfires.

Besides the Forest Fund, there are national parks and reserves. They are under the control of the Ministry of Natural Resources, whose forest rangers are tasked with handling wildfires. There are also forests in and around military sites – there the Ministry of Defense is responsible for putting out fires, though the total size of these lands is small.

One common misconception about wildfire management in Russia is the role of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS). Sensational media coverage often shows MChS aircraft dumping water over burning forests. In addition, the recently appointed head of the MChS, Alexander Kurenkov, openly criticized regional governors for failing to effectively respond to the fires. But as Kuksin explains, this is mostly PR: “The MChS basically doesn’t have anything to do with fighting wildfires besides when a state of emergency is declared and those cases when people or residential areas are directly threatened,” says Kuksin. In fact, according to WWF, the MChS puts out only around 10% of forest fires, while the rest are dealt with by regional governments, forest ranger units and landowners.

Problems with fighting wildfires

In 2015, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources issued an order that established so-called wildfire “control zones.” In these zones, regional authorities aren’t required to put out a forest fire if there is no direct threat to residential areas or economically important infrastructure, as well as in cases when the estimated costs of putting out a fire exceed the predicted damage that it may cause. Some experts consider the control zones a reasonable policy innovation, since putting out all wildfires is an impossible task. In practice, authorities have always made cost estimates when prioritizing which wildfires to tackle. However, the control zones are not always clearly defined. Sometimes the areas where wildfires aren’t required to be put out include commercial forests, populated areas and even public infrastructure.

Each year the boundaries of the zones are revised and improved, but the resources to put out wildfires even outside the control zones are still insufficient. “The amount of money the federal government sends to regions for fighting wildfires is about 10 times less than what is really needed,” says Kuksin. “We really need more helicopters and planes for moving around responders and volunteers. There just isn’t enough. And really, the main problem is a shortage of people.” A lack of professionally trained firefighters means that wildfire response usually relies on volunteers. Likewise, when there aren’t enough hands in a region experiencing fires, Rosleskhoz often mobilizes its paratroopers from other parts of Russia. Using volunteers is not unique to Russia – many countries can’t do without the support of volunteer groups to deal with wildfires. However, as Kuksin explains, the number of volunteer units is in reality much smaller than it might seem on paper. “It’s also gotten more difficult to recruit people this year because of the economic and political situations,” he says.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.

For further reading

‘Every summer the forest burns’ Photographer Denis Sinyakov captures the battle against Siberia’s devastating wildfires

Wildfires in Russia: Will war in Ukraine limit firefighting response?
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