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Fires burn in Siberia, but Russian firefighting assets are in Ukraine

The blazes have sent billowing smoke into the western United States, tinting skies pink

A satellite image captures fires burning April 15 in Tyumen oblast in Western Siberia. (European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 data)
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Fires are erupting in Siberia this spring, sending billowing smoke into the western United States that has tinted skies pink.

Some experts are concerned that Russia may lack sufficient military resources to extinguish the blazes, especially as fire activity increases in the summer, given its invasion of Ukraine.

This month, wildfires have already appeared on the peatlands of Russia’s Far East, activating firefighting services. The Russian Federal Forestry Agency reported that it extinguished more than 600 fires over 37,000 hectares (about 91,000 acres) nationwide last week.

One of the regions with the largest number of extinguished forest fires was in Omsk oblast. Videos from the Siberian Times showed wildfires raging across the Omsk and Tyumen oblasts in Western Siberia, while satellite data showed several fires across the landscape. Some of the fires have been burning for more than a week, even as lakes still appear frozen.

Smoke from the fires has traveled thousands of miles, reaching the western United States. People have noted hazier skies, smokier sunsets and reddish hues over the moon — features typically seen during the height of the summer fire season.

The National Weather Service office in Tucson posted a Twitter thread tracing the origins of the smoke, which revealed scores of fire hot spots sensed by satellites over Russia. Smoke from one particularly large fire wrapped into a storm system that tracked across the Pacific Ocean and reached the West Coast on Saturday. The Weather Service also wrote that some of the smoke reaching the West Coast originated in Mongolia and China, while dust from the Gobi Desert may have been mixed in with the smoke.

Fire activity in Siberia has picked up in spring in recent years. Wildfires occurred in these oblasts about the same time in 2020. Fires appeared in late April last year, although the largest clusters began burning in the Sahka region in Russia’s Far East in early May.

“The data are showing that the fires are occurring in the spring fire season, but there has been a high number of fires and the daily total intensity/emissions were well above average for the early stages of the season,” Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, wrote in an email.

At a news conference Thursday, Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency said firefighters are prepared and will work on high alert to manage and prevent fires in coming weeks. The head of the agency, Ivan Sovetnikov, said about 90 percent of spring forest fires are associated with human activities — fires that spread to forests from other lands, are caused by prohibited agricultural burns or are a result of carelessness. The agency will deploy helicopters, drones and even artificial precipitation.

But some think the invasion of Ukraine could reduce Russia’s firefighting resources, with many personnel and a great deal of equipment deployed to the war. In past years, as fires intensified with summer’s approach, the Russian military often aided firefighters. Helicopters and planes can dump water on blazes, while thousands of ground troops wade through swamps and the intense heat to put out fires.

“There’s no question that Ukraine has been a huge drain on the ground resources for Russia,” said Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They moved a lot of troops outside of the country. Any troops that are going back are pretty beat-up. It’s going to be harder to fight” the fires.

Even without a war, many large fires are allowed to burn if they do not threaten major settlements because of insufficient funding for firefighters.

Without appropriate firefighting resources, wildfires go unchecked and can spread uncontrollably, including on Siberia’s carbon-rich soils. Much of the soil is composed of organic matter that is hundreds of years to millennia old, with large quantities of carbon buried deep within the permafrost. Fires can burn deep within the thawing soil, releasing large amounts of carbon and methane into the atmosphere.

Serious about climate change? Get serious about peat.

The fires also release particles that can harm human health and the environment. For instance, black carbon can enter the lungs of people and animals and cause disease. It can irritate eyes, noses and throats. The particles also can absorb sunlight and heat the ground below, potentially further exacerbating fire conditions in the area.

Although it’s too soon to project the intensity of wildfire activity this spring and summer, rising global temperatures have intensified fire seasons and will probably continue to do so. Studies show that the number of forest fires and the size of the burned area has increased in Siberia in recent decades, correlating with air temperatures and drought. Computer models also show that rising global temperatures will dry out vegetation in the region, increasing the annual number of fire-danger days and large blazes, particularly in southern Siberia and in Sakha in the Far East.

The past few years have highlighted this threat. At one point last year, fires in Siberia were larger than all other fires in the world put together. From June 1 to Aug. 1, fires emitted a record-breaking amount of carbon for Sakha.

Siberia’s wildfires are bigger than all the world’s other blazes combined

A report by the European Commission ranked carbon emissions from last year’s Arctic wildfires as the fourth highest in almost two decades. These levels were considered “normal” compared with the historically active seasons of 2019 and 2020, said Parrington, noting that those years had higher fire activity across the Arctic Circle than 2021, although not necessarily in Sakha.

“It’s difficult to say if these are indicative of what we could expect for the summer — I expect there will be fires in more eastern regions of Siberia, and possibly in the Arctic, during the summer,” Parrington wrote. “The fire risk is likely to be high based on the climate anomalies (i.e. warmer and drier conditions) in recent years and months. The locations and duration will depend on the meteorological conditions, though.”