Scientists and environmentalists are warning that Russia's Siberian forests, hit with a severe drought this summer, are increasingly being consumed by wildfires that are consistently underestimated by the government.
Greenpeace told the French news agency AFP on September 27 that the fires have destroyed 2 million hectares of Siberian forest, and it blamed the problem on global warming.
Russia's federal forestries agency has conceded it is battling a major wildfire problem this year but estimates that only 125,000 hectares of land have been affected.
But Greenpeace Russia spokesman Aleksei Yaroshenko warned of "an unprecedented catastrophe in Siberia," which he blamed in part on "the ineffectiveness of the authorities."
He told AFP that the fires peaked last week around the Siberian cities of Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk near Lake Baikal, where nearly 5 million people live, and that some schools had to be closed because of the thick smoke covering the area.
Since then, much-needed rain has shrunk the affected area but "around 900,000 hectares are still on fire today," he said.
On September 25, Russia's minister of emergency situations, Vladimir Puchkov, called for additional measures to protect residents in the affected areas and said authorities have not been able to fully gauge the extent of the fire damage because satellite surveillance has been hampered by a huge cloud of smoke.
Photos take by NASA satellites this summer showed a swath of smoke covering much of Siberia and stretching from the border with Kazakhstan to Mongolia.
Experts claim that such images show that the fires are 10 times more widespread than acknowledged by the Russian government.
“If you look at the whole area over the past 30 years, there’s a significant increase in burned area that is very clear by the early 2000s,” Susan Conrad, a former U.S. Forest Service scientist who has spent decades researching the impact of fire on Siberia, told ClimateWire.
Conrad and a group of Russian, Canadian, and American colleagues have tracked the incidence of “big fires,” or those about 2,000 hectares in size or larger, since 1979. They’ve found a sharp uptick.
Fires are a natural event in wild forests and affect other countries such as Canada and the United States, as well. They destroy huge areas in Russia each summer, usually in the eastern region of Siberia, leaving poorly funded government agencies struggling to contain them.
But Greenpeace wildfire prevention expert Grigory Kuksin told the Siberian Times that the government could do more to get the fires under control.
"Everywhere it's the same scenario, where a small fire is ignored and then goes out of control," he said. "If they start reacting on time to small fires, everything will be OK."
Aleksandr Bruykhanov, senior researcher at the Forestry Institute in Krasnoyarsk, told the Siberian Times that massive wildfires have become more frequent and cannot be fully controlled by the government. He said they will only be extinguished when rain returns to the region.
"Large wildfires have been happening here every 10 to 30 years, and in the last decades every five to 10 years, because of increased anthropological pressure and global climate change," he said.
"The Emergencies Ministry won't be able to help here but will only cause some extra work for foresters, who will have to rescue rescuers."
With reporting by AFP, Siberian Times, Mashable, and ClimateWire