An immense forest fire has hit Siberia, where Buryatia, Yakutia, and the Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk regions are ablaze. According to Greenpeace Russia, over four million hectares are burning, an area larger than the size of Belgium. The vast boreal forests sometimes called the “lungs of the northern hemisphere” are at risk.
For nearly two weeks, photos have spread across the Runet of flaming forests, as well as satellite imagery showing the extent of the blaze, accompanied by the hashtags #сибирьгорит (“Siberia is burning”), #гориттайга (“the Taiga is burning”), #потушитесибирь, (“Extinguish Siberia”) and #мирспасисибирь (“World, Save Siberia!”)
Commentators are angry that local authorities did not start to fight the fire sooner. While forest fires are no rarity in Siberia, climate scientists stated that this year’s fires spread particularly aggressively due to a combination of strong winds and the unusually hot summer. The sluggishness in tackling them could also be explained by the fact that the fires first broke out in remote areas.
According to Alexander Uss, governor of the Krasnoyarsk Region, it is impractical to fight fires in such remote regions. Uss added, during a lecture at a youth forum at a Siberian university on 29 July, that the forests were “self-replenishing,” that forest fires were “a common natural phenomenon,” and that fighting them is “meaningless and can even be harmful to try.”
But there is no fire without smoke. In recent days, that smoke has drifted well beyond Siberian cities such as Novosibirsk and Tomsk, where medical personnel have reported a rise in ambulance calls and patients with high blood pressure due to air pollution. Residents as far west as Tatarstan and as far south as Kazakhstan have also reported breathing difficulties; they are sharing images of thick smog in their regions over Instagram. Others are sharing selfies in which they wear breathing masks bearing the words “Siberia Burns.”
One user shared the experience of her relatives living in a town in the Irkutsk region:
говорила сейчас с сестрой, она живет и работает в Усть-Илимске. дышать там нечем совершенно, все сидят в закрытых квартирах с увлажнителями воздуха и терпят. я не нашла информации по погибшим (а в пожары городские люди часто гибнут не от огня, а от сердца, вспомните пожары в Центральной России 2011 года. но умирающие от сердца на счет пожара и совесть властей не пойдут)
I just spoke with my sister, she lives and works in Ust-Ilimsk. It’s really impossible to breathe there; everyone’s sitting locked up in their apartments with air humidifiers and suffering. I haven’t found any information on victims (and during fires, city dwellers often don’t die from the flames but from heart [complications], remember the fires in Central Russia in 2011.
— Oksana Vasyakina, Facebook, 29 July 2019
Another gave a chillingly clinical account of what awaits residents in such places:
Населённые пункты на запад от горящих лесов поглотил густой дым. Люди дышат токсичными продуктами горения. Наверное, вы знаете, что, когда пожарные входят в горящий дом, на них надеты специальные маски, чтобы они не задохнулись от угарного газа. По этой же причине во время пожара в помещении рекомендуется дышать через мокрую тряпку. Но это делают, когда горят только здания, из которых можно выбраться и начать дышать свежим воздухом, а сейчас пламенем охвачены гигантские лесные массивы, а смог от этих пожаров распространяется на тысячи километров. Людей до сих пор не начали эвакуировать, из-за этого они сильно пострадают. […] Многие последствия могут проявляться не сразу, а через несколько недель. Это бомба замедленного действия.
Populated places to the West of the burning forests are enveloped in a thick fog. People are breathing the toxic emissions from the fire. You probably know that, when firemen enter a burning house, they wear special masks so they don’t suffocate from carbon monoxide. That’s the reason why it’s recommended to breathe though a damp cloth in case of fire. But that’s done when a single building is burning, from which you can escape and start to breathe fresh air. But now the flames cover gigantic forests, and smoke from these fires spreads over thousands of kilometres. People still haven’t begun to be evacuated, so they’re seriously suffering. […] Many of the symptoms don’t manifest immediately, but after several weeks. It’s a slow-acting bomb.
— Александра Кукулина, Facebook, 28 July 2019
The St Petersburg based Buryat journalist Alexandra Gamarzhapova reflected on the crisis in her home region:
Больше 3 млн га леса прямо в эти минуты горит в Сибири. В моей родной Бурятии введен режим ЧС.
Мы привыкли, что людям в общем-то друг на друга плевать (чиновников, которые отказывается тушить пожары, терпим мы с вами), но звери-то и леса тут причем?
Сотни тысяч животных гибнут сейчас, потому что человек говорит, что тушить пожары дорого.
Я присоединяюсь ко флешмобу #сибирьгорит и верю, что если нас, неравнодушных, будет миллионы, власти начнут борьбу с огнем.
P.S. За виртуальные флешмобы пока не сажают, так что присоединяйтесь.
More than three million hectares are burning in Siberia this very minute. A state of emergency has been introduced in my native region of Buryatia.
We’re used to people not giving a damn about each other (to those officials who refuse to put out the fires: we suffer with you), but why do the animals and the forests have to suffer?
Hundreds of thousands of animals are dying right now, because one man said that it is too expensive to put out the fires?
I’m joining the flashmob #Siberiaisburning and believe that if there are millions of us who are not indifferent [to this], the authorities will start fighting the fire.
P.S. They don’t jail people yet for virtual flashmobs, so come and join.
— Alexandra Garmazhapova, Facebook, 30 July 2019
Those are just a few reasons why Alexander Uss is probably the least popular man in Russia right now. They’re also why 780,000 people, as of 31 July, signed an online petition demanding that the government introduce emergency status across Siberia.
Nevertheless, Uss’s statements did have a legal basis. As the Russian daily Vedomosti noted, many of the remote areas where the fires broke out are “control zones,” a term introduced in 2015. Due to their distance from settlements and key infrastructure, local authorities are not obliged to fight forest fires in these areas, which saves them money and resources. But Grigory Kukshin of Greenpeace Russia told Sibir.Realii that many of the control zones are far from uninhabited, and that nearly 90 per cent of Russia’s forest fires last summer occurred in such areas. The State Duma, Russia’s legislature, is now considering a review of “control zones.”
So the authorities are beginning to respond to public demand; on 29 July, Rosleskhoz, Russia’s state forestry agency, reported that military units and planes had started to put out the blaze. But it seems to be too little, too late. As was the case during recent floods in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, Russian commentators are already linking the government’s response to broader questions of accountability and state-society relations. This was not helped by president Vladimir Putin’s earlier offer of support to Greece to combat forest fires on 24 July.
Importantly, many of the regions affected already suffer from ecological problems, meaning that existing eco-movements (such as Krasnoyarsk’s “Clear Sky” movement against air pollution) have played an important role in mobilising locals to make their voices heard.
So the idea that fighting forest fires is “economically unprofitable” resonates with people who suspect this is just how the government sees their prior problems. In fact, the phrase has become a meme in its own right, in a similar spirit to Dmitry Medvedev’s words “there’s no money but you hang in there,” which the Russian prime minister said to pensioners in Crimea in 2016.
They tell us that it’s not profitable to extinguish the Krasnoyarsk taiga. And what about paying the multi-million salaries of [Igor] Sechin, [-] Miller, [-] Kostin; is that profitable? Or, perhaps, the construction of a new residence for [Russian Orthodox Patriarch] Kirill for nearly three billion rubles; is that profitable? Have all of you over there in Moscow completely lost your minds? Have you forgotten who saved your asses from the clutches of the fascists in December 1941? We, the Siberian people, demand a full-scale operation to extinguish [the fires] in our forests, using all the forces of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and Ministry of Defence.
— Nikolai Salnikov, Ekho Moskvy, July 27, 2019
Similarly, libertarian activist Mikhail Svetov, who runs a popular YouTube channel, linked discontent over the forest fires to other causes of public concern:
It’s not profitable to extinguish the taiga. But it is profitable to spend 216 billion on supporting the national guard. It is profitable to poison children with landfills and send toxic waste to Shiyes. As we go out to defend Russia and our future, they fight for the right to ravage our country.
— Mikhail Svetov (@msvetov) July 27, 2019
True to form, some Runet users turned tragedy to farce with their acerbic wit:
It’s unpatriotic to say “forest fires.”
As everybody knows:
It’s not an explosion, but a ball of cotton
Not an aviation catastrophe, but a hard landing
Not miserable poverty, but negative income growth
That’s why these are not forest fires, but a smoke screen against NATO spy satellites