YAKUTSK, Russia -- A season of devastating wildfires has put the world on notice and generated predictions of an apocalyptic future without coordinated action.
But in Siberia, a Russian region known more for extreme cold than scorching summers, residents are depending on a ragtag army of ill-equipped volunteers to help save them from raging wildfires that dwarf all others on Earth combined.
“Of course the work is dangerous, but what can you do?” one unidentified volunteer fighting fires near the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “This is what we trained for, and it’s not the first year we’ve been doing this.”
Officials say this summer is the driest in the past 150 years. Approximately 1.5 million hectares -- an area comparable in size to Denmark -- have already burned in the Sakha Republic, or Yakutia, a vast territory comprising much of Siberia and stretching across Russia’s Far East. Numerous villages have been evacuated. Smoke has blanketed the regional capital, Yakutsk, which boasts the coldest winters of any major city in the world, and even reached the North Pole.
Wildfires are also raging in many other Russian regions, as far afield as Karelia near the western border with Finland. Videos have surfaced showing residents of Bashkortostan in the central Urals region using tree branches and carpets in a futile effort to stamp out the fires.
But it’s in Yakutia -- a place where temperatures regularly slip below minus 50 Celsius -- where the situation is most dire and where local residents have been forced to take the initiative amid a muted government response, working round the clock to save settlements in the line of fire.
“We’re volunteers, and, of course, no one gave us time off work,” said a volunteer who helps out in the village of Magaras, about 100 kilometers west of Yakutsk, after his regular workday is done. "We can devote our free time to this common work. And instead of just sitting online and writing comments, we can do something real.”
The volunteers organize on social media, forming groups on messenger apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. They’ve also opened a special hub for coordinating their operations in the center of Yakutsk. Early in the morning, they hop in the back of trucks that drive them out of the city into hard-hit patches of land, where they use rudimentary tools in an often futile bid to stamp out the flames.
Forest fires are a natural part of the annual cycle in Siberia. But climate change and the soaring temperatures that come with it have wreaked havoc, causing the usually frigid region that is covered by permafrost to warm at least 2.5 times faster than in other parts of the world.
Authorities in Yakutia say an unusual lack of rain this year led to record-breaking fires, with the average June temperature of 20 degrees Celsius obliterating the historic norm of 15 degrees.
On August 10, the Emergency Situations Ministry announced an expansion of its firefighting teams and an increase in the number of aircraft dispatched to Yakutia. But authorities have also consciously left dozens of fires to burn, deeming them too difficult to combat or too small a danger to homes and livelihoods in the sparsely populated region.
The world was first alerted to the worrying situation in Siberia when massive wildfires broke out in 2019, and the two subsequent two summers have seen no respite. As of August 6, some 400 settlements have been affected in Yakutia, and Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry has estimated that 1 billion rubles ($13.5 million) in damage has been caused by the fires since June.
Entrepreneur Ayil Dulurkha, who founded a volunteer team with a hub in Yakutsk, told Current Time on August 9 that many volunteers are driven by patriotism and a sense that if they don’t step up, the damage caused by the wildfires could be far greater.
“We began getting together and equipping ourselves, raising funds from locals, and once we were more or less ready, and trained by professionals, we went to help our region,” Dulurkha said. Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
When Siberia’s wildfires first erupted in late June, Russia’s military sent heavy-lift transport planes to douse them. Military helicopters also dropped water to extinguish the fires and transported teams of firefighters into the area to try and extinguish them.
But Dulurkha, like many volunteers, lamented what he says is a woeful lack of adequate help from the authorities and from Moscow.
“I think that on a federal level, not enough attention is paid to our region. There’s a view that few people live here and the territory is large, so [they’ll allocate as little money as possible],” he said.
On August 8, authorities reported that close to 200 separate fires were blazing across the region. In the village of Byas-Kuel, the fires destroyed 33 houses and eight maintenance buildings and left more than 150 people without homes.
"This is a huge loss," Yakutia Governor Aysen Nikolayev wrote on Facebook. “People lost everything they built and accumulated for years -- homes, property, their households.”
But some residents placed the blame on Nikolayev and his administration.
“This is just a nightmare. I still can’t believe it. Many people have left the village, but some have remained to fight the fire and defend their homes,” Tuyaara Borisova, an inhabitant of Byas-Kuel, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “How could this happen? They kept telling us it’s all under control!”
While smaller fires are burning in other parts of Russia, smoke from Yakutia’s flames has now blanketed neighboring regions including Krasnoyarsk in western Siberia, where residents of the eponymous regional capital have long complained about suffocating smog, which is now combining with smoke from wildfires to make going outside unbearable.
“We’re suffering. A work colleague has asthma. He’s on the verge of a breakdown. Residents with lung problems are complaining,” Natalya Popolyak, a teacher at Siberian University in Krasnoyarsk, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “Of course, in Yakutia this horror has lasted longer, since the end of June, but that doesn’t make it easier for us.”
The sense that local officials have done too little to safeguard residents from the effects of the wildfires is widespread, and some have taken to social media to post appeals to the man often seen in Russia as standing above it all, and alone capable of ensuring a robust response to natural catastrophes: President Vladimir Putin.
On August 8, 7-year-old Vladimir Kamenev donned a blue shirt and pink-striped tie and stood on the street outside his house in Krasnoyarsk to record a video message to the president that quickly spread online. He asked Putin to “take personal control” of the situation.
“We have nothing to breathe. We want to live,” the boy said. “We want to play on the street, but our moms are forbidding it, telling us it’s harmful.”