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'Low chance' Siberia wildfires will be brought under control: Greenpeace fire expert

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Copernicus monitoring  of Arctic fires in the Sakha Republic, 4 August 2019
Copernicus monitoring of Arctic fires in the Sakha Republic, 4 August 2019 -
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Siberia's wildfires are only getting bigger despite Russian airforce intervention, Greenpeace Russia warned this week.

In an interview with Euronews Tonight, Greenpeace fire expert Anton Beneslavsky said there was an extremely low chance of the fires being brought under control by emergency services.

"These fires... will stay active until rain comes," Beneslavsky said. He pointed to the slow response of authorities in tackling the fires when they were still "controllable".

In a situation update released on Tuesday, the environmental group said the area of ​​existing forest fires reached 4.5 million hectares. The federal forestry agency in Russia said the area was closer to 2.3 million hectares earlier in the week, according to Reuters.

"The size is now hardly manageable. The fire is already too big," Beneslavsky said in an earlier interview, adding that the situation could potentially turn dangerous for local populations, as fires could develop unpredictably towards inhabited areas.

Even from a distance, exposure to smoke from the fires could pose a danger to residents' health, Beneslavsky said. He thinks that smoke could affect cities in the Irkutsk region within the next few days.

"The area of forest fires in Siberia continues to grow despite the statement by the governor of the Krasnoyarsk territory, Alexander Uss, claiming that in his region 'there was a radical turning point in the fight against fires'," Greenpeace Russia said in a statement on Tuesday.

Environmentalists have described the blazes raging across the region as an ecological catastrophe.

Satellite imagery on Thursday, August 8, showed the impressive scale of the smoke plumes in the area.

Terra MODIS data through NASA Worldview, processed by Pierre Markuse
Siberian wildfires and smoke plumes, Russia - August 8th, 2019Terra MODIS data through NASA Worldview, processed by Pierre Markuse

Russian authorities respond

On August 7, the Russian Agency for Forestry said it had instructed three regional departments to expedite the transfer of firefighting forces. The Ministry of Natural Resources said that work was being done to extinguish 69 forest fires in Krasnoyarsk, 82 fires in Irkutsk, 15 fires in Sakha, and 28 fires in another remote area.

The Ministry of Natural Resources also warned that the fire hazard forecast from August 7 to August 11 showed little precipitation in several areas affected by the fires. Other areas are expected to get thunderstorms.

Much of the northeastern part of Russia will continue to experience abnormally high temperatures over the next ten days, according to forecast models from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Insitute, University of Maine

The emergencies ministry said on Thursday, August 8, that it had completed 236 missions and released more than 1,500 tonnes of water in "the most difficult ignition areas" during the day.

On Sunday, Russia's Ministry of Defence said its air force had put out ​​753,000 hectares (7,530 square kilometres) of forest fires in Siberia in four days.

Russian prosecutors said earlier this week that some of the fires were started on purpose to hide illegal logging activity.

'Ecological catastrophe'

President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian army to take part in fire-fighting efforts in Siberia last week.

"Hundreds of people are affected by the effects of smoke," said Deputy Emergency Minister Alexandr Chuprián, who arrived Sunday in the Irkutsk region to coordinate extinction operations.

States of emergencies had been declared across five regions in response to the fires, which have burned more than a million hectares each in the worst-affected areas of the Sakha Republic and Krasnoyarsk.

But Russia's Federal Forestry Agency said last week that the fires did not pose "a threat to human settlements and economic facilities."

"The projected cost of extinguishing them exceeds the projected damage that they may cause," the agency said.

Alexander Uss, the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, was quoted in Russian media as saying it would be "meaningless" and "perhaps even harmful" to deploy thousands of people to help extinguish the flames.

He said: "The fact is that this is a common natural phenomenon, to fight with which it is meaningless, but somewhere, perhaps even harmful."

This slow response from Russian authorities has sparked an angry backlash from local populations, who report struggling to live amid thick smoke that has spread and blanketed major surrounding cities and territories.

More than 1 million people, at the time of writing, have signed a petition demanding a state of emergency be declared across the whole of Siberia, and that more be done to battle the flames.

It says: "Imagine what's happening in the core of the disaster right now with forests and animals burning alive."

"Burning down of forests results in groundwater level decrease and possible freshwater shortage."

Pointing out that the proximity of the flames to human settlements was not the only burden, the petition added: "It has been causing respiratory difficulties for humans and animals, and endangering various species of fauna and flora."

Aside from smoke reaching areas across Russia, neighbouring Mongolia has also expressed its concern.

Purevjav Soronzonbold, a senior officer at the Firefighting Department of the Mongolian National Emergency Management Agency, was quoted in reports as saying it had been "seriously watching" the outcome of the blaze.

'Hard to breathe'

Meanwhile, social media users living in cities affected by the smoke have been posting content demonstrating the poor visibility and discussing their difficulties with breathing.

One Nizhnevartovsk-based user said the smoke was "simply trouble", but added that she was for the moment "fine".

She said: "Our small town is in the ring and the embrace of swamps, taiga, lakes and rivers. This smog came from Krasnoyarsk. At the moment we are fine. But this is temporary. Save our land!"

Another user said the smoke was causing "a nightmare". Captioning her pictures, she pointed out: "You can't even see the bridge, the roads and the cars."

Several users based in Irkutsk also posted content, with one describing the scene as "an abyss" that had "descended from the sky", adding that it had "become hard to breathe".

Severe flooding

While some parts of Siberia have been battling the effects of the huge wildfires, others have been facing another round of severe flooding.

The first came after a cyclone hit the region's south in June, bringing torrential rain that burst river banks and inundated local settlements.

At least 25 people were killed in the flooding, with seven people still missing.

The Russian news agency TASS reported on August 5 that a state of emergency was declared in Khabarovsk with the expectation that the Amur river flooding would affect more than 4,000 houses.

The agency reported that nearly 1,800 houses were affected by flooding last week in the Irkutsk region.

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