Ah, 2020: Another month, another disaster. Just in case you forgot this cursed year started with Australian bushfires that killed over a billion animals, wildfires have now lit up huge chunks of forest and farmland in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Up to nine Siberian regions have been affected by wildfires, with the regions of Kemerovo and Novosibirsk being the hardest hit, according to satellite data gathered by NASA.
Evgeny Zinichev, the Russian Minister of Emergency Situations, recently described the situation as “critical.” According to The Siberian Times, Zinichev has stated that the fires near Krasnoyarsk have taken over 10 times as much territory as last year, while fires in Transbaikal are triple the size of last year, and in the Amur region fires have engulfed 1.5 times more territory than last year. So far, at least 50 houses have been destroyed in Novosibirsk region and 27 in Kemerovo.
The fires are thought to have been started by humans burning dry grass on agricultural land, despite this practice being banned. While fires often hit Siberia throughout spring and summer – last year saw some of the worst in recent memory – this season has been especially harsh in certain areas due to a relatively snowless and mild winter.
Russia is usually known for its bitterly cold temperatures, but the 2019-2020 winter season was Russia's hottest winter since records began, creating dry conditions that are the ideal setting for fires to spread. Off the back of this, Russia has recently experienced a warm and windy April, allowing the infernos to take root and sweep across long rural stretches of the country.
“The main reason, of course, is unauthorized and uncontrolled agricultural fires,” Zinichev warned in a video conference alongside President Vladimir Putin, according to the Siberian Times. However, “A less snowy winter, an abnormal winter, and insufficient soil moisture are factors that create the conditions for the transition of landscape fires to settlements.”
Sergei Anoprienko, head of the Russian federal forestry agency Rosleskhoz, also blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for the rise in fires, saying large numbers of people have left urban areas for the countryside due to country’s lockdown measures, and recklessly started fires.
"In some regions, the temperature is already around 30°C [89°F], and people just can’t keep themselves in their apartments," said Anoprienko. “People self-isolated outdoors and forgot about fire safety rules,” he added.
Thousands of hectares of fire have already been extinguished. However, with this spring set to be filled with more balmy weather, authorities are preparing for the wildfires to continue to wreak havoc across Russia over the coming weeks.
"The year is expected to be difficult as far as the risk of wildfires goes. Forecasts say that this summer will be hotter than usual so fourth- and fifth-degree fires are highly likely to occur," Roman Vilfand, Scientific Director of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, told Russian state news agency TASS.
"We cannot rule out the possibility of steady rains in May. In this case, our current concerns will turn out to be baseless. But risks do exist," he added.