Day 6·Q&A

Russia's war in Ukraine could limit ability to fight wildfires in Siberia, says researcher

Fires in remote parts of the vast country are typically fought by local and Indigenous communities with support from the Russian military, she said. But with Russia’s military engaged in conflict in Ukraine, she believes resources are limited, says researcher Jessica McCarty.

'Many of the largest fires are fought using military personnel and military equipment': Jessica McCarty

A firefighter stands at the scene of forest fire west of Yakutsk, Russia on Aug. 7, 2021. Last summer, the country saw record fires engulf parts of Siberia in flames. (Ivan Nikiforov/The Associated Press)

As wildfires erupt in parts of Siberia, one researcher is warning that Russia's war in Ukraine could limit efforts to extinguish them.

Reports indicate that fires have already begun across the Omsk and Tyumen oblasts (administrative regions) in Western Siberia. The most recent fires began in late April, and follow a year of record blazes in 2021 fuelled in part by historic drought conditions as well as climate change.

Smoke from last year's fires blanketed cities and towns and reached as far as the North Pole.

Researchers are now tracking the new fires using satellite imagery.

"Right now, because it is the beginning of May, most of the fires we're seeing are caused by humans and agricultural landscapes," said Jessica McCarty, director of Geospatial Analysis Center and an associate professor at Miami University of Ohio.

"Siberia is not highly densely populated and so it can take a while for people to figure out that the fires are burning."

Fires in remote parts of the vast country are typically fought by local and Indigenous communities with support from the Russian military, she said. 

But with Russia's military engaged in conflict in Ukraine, she believes resources are limited.

A statement published late last month by Russia's federal forestry agency says they remain on high alert for fires. The agency says helicopters and drones will be used to fight fires. 

McCarty spoke with Day 6 host Saroja Coelho about the threat of wildfires in Siberia and the effects on climate change. Here is part of that conversation.

What impact is [the war in Ukraine] having on these wildfires?

In North America, we have these kind of legions of trained wildland firefighters at provincial levels, at state levels and at federal levels. This is not the case in Russia. In fact, many of the largest fires are fought using military personnel and military equipment.

So the aerial tankers that we would use, say to drop water or fire retardant, in the U.S., those are civilian. And in Canada, they're civilian planes. In Russia, they're almost exclusively military. 

And oftentimes in Siberia, how that request is made is that the governors of each okrug, of each krai, of each republic, they would request from Moscow that this equipment be sent to fight the fires. 

Right now, those requests are not being made. There's no equipment being sent. The fires are being left to burn. And as we progress into the summer season and the fires move even farther north, the population also gets more sparse and so there's fewer people on the ground to fight the fires. 

And you absolutely need, essentially, personnel deployed by the military because of this reliance on military personnel. It's not 100 per cent, but it's a lot.... Some of these fires are just simply not going to be fought, but they're going to be left to burn. 

Smoke from forest fires covers Yakutsk, the capital of the republic of Yakutia, Russia, in August 2021. Smoke covered hundreds of villages in Siberia as wildfires raged in Russia's vast, forest-rich region last summer. (Ivan Nikiforov/The Associated Press)

What is it about this area that makes it so susceptible to wildfires? The possibility for setting the fires is clearly there, but why do they spread and continue and burn the way that they do? 

The southern boreal forests of Siberia are actually pretty dry ... so it has more fuels that are ready to burn. So these fuels are in a similar condition as, say, the North American fuels or vegetation — our trees, our shrubs, our grasses — would be by the end of June. So it's just much earlier in the year. 

There's also a large steppe region. We would call that a prairie or the Great Plains in North America, but there is this large grassland area in southern Siberia.

One thing I was reading about is how there are fires that actually continue to burn and glow under the earth that we don't know are there. And that happens right through the winter and now they're emerging. 

That's right. So these are often referred to as zombie fires, and that term comes colloquially from Alaska. 

So the locals in Alaska would call them zombie fires because they thought those fires had been put out the year before — and then they would pop up after the snow melted in the spring. 

So these overwintering or holdover fires occur in areas where there's peat. And when the peat is dry, and the fires are not put out sufficiently in the summer before, essentially they can burn throughout the winter.

If we do get some more extreme early summer temperatures, we could see more extreme fires.- Jessica McCarty, researcher

How has the war in Ukraine affected your ability to communicate with Russian scientists who are doing the same work and looking at these exact same wildfires? 

We're not talking to each other. 

I'm a U.S. citizen, so I must follow the U.S. sanctions. [And] I'm currently in Finland because I'm a visiting researcher with the Finnish Environment Institute on an EU-funded project for studying more about boreal and Arctic fires. So I have to follow sanctions essentially in two countries and the EU at the moment. 

That means all communication must be on a personal level. So I do have colleagues in Russia who I have a personal relationship with, and if I wanted to send them a personal message, I could do so. 

But a professional one to continue or establish new work does not align with the requirements of the sanctions. And so we are simply unable to talk to each other. 

What effect does that have on the work that you and your colleagues are doing? 

We're abandoning field work, planned field campaigns, planned cooperation publications. And so we won't have access to those data. So we won't know what's happening. We will have to observe it all from satellites.

Yakutsk, pictured in July 2021, blanketed by smoke from wildfires in the region. Extremely dry drought conditions led to historic fires throughout Siberia last year. (Yevgeny Sofroneyev/The Associated Press)

These wildfires do seem, from your description, to be more dangerous than most. Can you explain why, from a climate perspective?

Do they impact climate? Yes. In fact, some of the research that I've been a part of as a U.S. representative to an Arctic Council working group ... we estimated the amount of black carbon emissions from all fires in boreal and Arctic zones. 

You can think of it as kind of the dark part of smoke, the soot that you can see. When it is emitted in the spring time and early summer like now, that causes rapid melt of sea ice, which means more sea ice melts because of our fire than is just being caused by the warming of climate change. 

And if you calculate all the black carbon emissions from the eight Arctic states, Russia is almost two-thirds of those emissions, which means the other seven Arctic states, including Canada and the U.S. because of Alaska, we can do a lot to lower our emissions and that matters. 

But, ultimately, to get to a solution, we will need to at some point in the future see those emissions be reduced in Russia as well. And Siberia is, of course, one of the main regions where we see these early springtime and summer fires. 

If the war continues through the spring and the summer, how bad do you think that these wildfires might get through the course of this spring and summer? 

If we do get some more extreme early summer temperatures, we could see more extreme fires. And then, of course, if they're not engaged, then they will be allowed to spread. 

So I don't think that it will be fought. I don't think it will be engaged except by the local and Indigenous populations there. And we will just have to see unless things change in the war such that now this equipment can be deployed somewhere else.


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Liam Dawe. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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