Russia’s president once declared that climate change is caused by “invisible changes in the galaxy.” Now, large parts of Yakutia in Siberia are on fire. The permafrost is threatened and the government response has been inadequate.
By Christian Esch in Yakutsk
Yakutsk is shrouded in smoke. It drifts over the larch forests and through the cracks of the prefabricated buildings, turning the sky yellow and making breathing painful. Sometimes, it is so dense that the airport closes and the ferries can no longer cross the wide Lena River.
Yakutsk, the capital of the Russian republic of Yakutia in Siberia, a seven-hour flight east of Moscow, is experiencing a gloomy summer. The end of days seems nigh.
The fact that the Siberian taiga is burning here has, to be sure, become rather normal. No region in Russia is as large and forested as Yakutia and at the same time so deserted. The region accounted for 70 percent of Russia’s forest fires last year.
But things are different this time. The forest fires are more numerous than they used to be, they are threatening settlements and creeping closer to people in the region. And they are raising new questions about what is happening to the climate in Yakutia.
Yakutia is the world’s coldest inhabited region – where the ground remains frozen deep down even in the summer. Now, though, it is warming faster than expected.
Aysen Nikolaev, the governor of Yakutia, has said that climate change was “undoubtedly” the most important reason for the current fires. He pointed to the fact that June was hotter than it has ever been in the history of weather records, with temperatures of more than 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) instead of the usual 15 degrees – and precipitation of only 2 instead of 37 millimeters (1.46 inches).
The region is threatened with a vicious cycle: The wildfires have the potential to drive climate change and further thaw the permafrost. The situation is very serious, but the state doesn’t seem equipped for dealing with the flames and is fighting the fires with totally inadequate means.
Flying Over the Taiga
Two and a half hours by car west of Yakutsk, in the village of Berdigestyakh, Svyatoslav Kolesov, 54, stands next to a Soviet Antonov biplane. Kolesov is a flight observer for Avialesookhrana, the special aerial firefighting organization for Russia’s forests, and one of the men leading efforts to battle the flames west of Yakutsk. “I haven’t seen this kind of flammability in the forests in 33 years,” he says.
The airfield at Berdigestyakh also serves as the horse racing track, and the plane is located behind a fence not far from the grandstand. “Your brothers, the parachutists, are flying this plane. Do not enter at night,” a self-painted sign warns. “Don’t climb on the plane,” warns another.
Avialesookhrana is a famous holdover from the Soviet times, with a history going back to 1931. The forest firefighting force monitors fires from the air and drops in firefighters by parachute. There are few roads in sparsely populated Yakutia. If time is short, five or six firefighters parachute from biplanes – directly into the trees if necessary – and the equipment is dropped after them. In less urgent situations, then a larger group is flown in by helicopter.
It’s a method rarely shown on TV, where you are more likely to see firefighting planes dumping water on the flames. “That looks nice and reassures the public, but it’s expensive and doesn’t do much good,” says Kolesov. It’s too imprecise, he says. The approach at Avialesookhrana is to fight the fire with pinpoint accuracy before it can spread.
“Here’s a bucket in case you get sick”
That’s the theory, at least. Unfortunately, it’s very different in practice. When Kolesov joined the forest fire service in 1988, the department in Yakutia alone had 1,600 employees, making it the largest in the Soviet Union. Three decades later, only 170 were left. “Even a cleaning lady made more than a firefighter,” he says. Only this spring, the total has begun to rise again.
“Here’s a bucket in case you get sick,” Kolesov shouts through the noise of the engines. Then the Antonov bumps across the runway and takes off. The last homes disappear and then there is only forest, occasionally interrupted by swamp and pastures. The Gorny District is as large as the German state of Lower Saxony, but it is home to only 12,000 people.
The taiga and the forest tundra in Yakutia together comprise one-fifth of the Russian forest. They cover 256 million hectares, an area seven times the size of Germany. This makes the region one of the world’s largest CO2 sequestration areas. The fact that the forest can grow here at all is due to the permafrost soil, which in Yakutia reaches a depth of more than a kilometer. The frozen ground ensures that the little precipitation the area does get doesn’t seep away and provides the tree roots with moisture. Otherwise, the region would be much too dry for a forest.
“In terms of climate, this part of Yakutia is semi-desert,” says Alexander Fedorov of the Yakutsk Melnikov Institute for Permafrost Research. The forest, in turn, protects the soil from thawing. “The average temperature in Yakutia has risen two to three degrees in the past 50 years,” he says. This is leading to the further thawing of the top layer of soil. Homes are sinking into the ground and pastures are turning into cratered landscapes. As it rots, organic matter that was preserved in the ice releases carbon dioxide or the greenhouse gas methane.
In the forest, the ground only thaws to an average depth of one meter, says Fedorov, and the changes are taking place much more slowly. The question is what happens when the protective layer fades?
A fine line of smoke shows where the fire is eating its way through the Siberian taiga. On one side, the forest is green. On the other, it is black or yellow, depending on whether the fire has burned the trees or only yellowed the tops.
Stooped on his knees, Kolesov holds printed maps of the fires known so far, each with a consecutive number. Dashed red circles around the few villages and farms show where a fire is closer than five kilometers to human settlements. Those are the only fires that are fought at all – or “attended to,” as Kolesov and his colleagues like to say. Most of Yakutia is what is called a control zone. Fires there are left to burn, and the firefighters’ activities are limited to monitoring them. In fact, fires in northern coniferous forests are actually necessary from time to time to re-expose the forest floor. “But not on this scale,” of course, Kolesov says. Half of all forests areas in Russia are classified as “control zones.”
Fire No. 52
Fire No. 52 is a threat to the village of Yert. A dry thunderstorm ignited it together with other fires in the district, says Kolesov. Thick smoke rises from the forest, but it is coming mostly from the controlled fires Kolesov’s men have set on the ground. Freshly dug fire trenches can be seen as the plane makes steeper and steeper turns, the only way to see the ground from the cockpit of the Antonov. Then Kolesov folds up his map and tosses it in a bright yellow bag to the firefighters camped in a clearing below.
In Yakutia, many doubt Governor Nikolaev’s belief that the new fires can be clearly attributed to climate change. After all, Kolesov argues, climate change ultimately describes a slow trend and not the recent heat waves.
Still, it is a step forward for Russia that the consequences of global warming are no longer only discussed in science, but also in politics. The country’s leader has long downplayed climate change and denied that it is man-made. As recently as October 2018, Vladimir Putin speculated at an energy forum that the cause of global warming was “invisible changes in the galaxy – and we don’t even understand what is happening. Man-made emissions probably also have an impact, but many specialists believe it is insignificant.”
For three years, Russia procrastinated until it became one of the last countries to ratify the Paris climate agreement in the fall of 2019. By 2030, greenhouse gas emissions in Russia are to be limited to 70 percent of 1990 levels.
Russia’s Emissions Targets
Experts like Alexey Kokorin of the conservation organization WWF, though, consider that target to be a sham. The Soviet Union, with its energy-intensive planned economy, was responsible for enormous CO2 emissions – and Russia is already 30 percent below those levels. On top of that, under the Paris targets, Russia is allowed to offset the CO2 absorbed by its forests when calculating its carbon footprint, an amount that is estimated to have been 535 million tons in 2019 alone.
The result is that Russia’s net emissions are currently about 50 percent of 1990 levels. In other words, the country’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions is actually a license to increase them.
Putin, of course, can hardly be an unbiased commentator when it comes to climate change due to the office he holds. Russia lives from the export of fossil fuels – you could say it’s the country’s business model. You don’t expect a tobacco manufacturer to talk impartially about the risks of smoking either. It’s impossible.
It was all the more striking when Putin struck a new chord on Russian television this June, talking about global warming. It is a serious problem, he said, and “many believe, not without reason, that it is primarily related to human activity.” He explicitly warned against the thawing of the permafrost. So far, however, his words have not led to a change in Russia’s climate policy.
If you take a car rather than the Antonov biplane, it’s a two-hour drive from Berdigestyakh to the village of Yert, where Kolesov’s firefighters are at work. The route takes you along a sandy road with wooden bridges. To the left and right, you can see larch, pine and birch trees. The undergrowth is sometimes burned – and it’s unclear whether it is from natural fires or back-burning. Pink willowherbs are evidence of older fires: The plant, which is popular in Russia as an herbal tea, likes to grow in places where there has been a recent fire. Yert is home to 534 residents, wide streets and wooden houses. Cows lie in the dust, and sometimes horses pass by. Two fire engines are parked in front of Town Hall.
Firefighting Backpacks, Chainsaws, Drip Lamps
A new working day begins in the tent camp belonging to the firefighters near Yert. It’s noon and the men are packing their tools: water-filled firefighting backpacks, chainsaws, hatchets, shovels and drip lamps used to start fires. “The technology is the same all over the world,” says Vasily Kapustin, the leader of the group. “You know the American movie ‘Only the Brave,’ about firefighters in Arizona? Well, they don’t work any differently.”
Kaputsin has only been with Avialesookhrana for three years, and most of his men are new to the job and have little experience. Throughout June, they worked in the Verkhoyansk district in the Arctic Circle, the coldest place in Russia. It will be like this for them all summer – they will fly from one assignment to another, and they will get to spend very little time with their families. The fire season begins in May and ends in September.
The firefighters have been working in Yert for around 10 days. The worst of the fire, when it spread to the treetops and the wind was strong, has passed. Fire No. 52 is now only spreading as a ground fire. Backfires are set day after day to contain it. To keep those backfires under control, vegetation must be removed down to the sand. Indeed, fighting fire with fire is hard work.
In the beginning, they had to shovel away the vegetation themselves. But now the work is being done using a tractor that was obtained and repaired in Yert. It’s a dented Soviet model DT-75 tractor with chain drive, but Kapustin swears by it. “In Soviet times, people still worked conscientiously!” With the help of a plow, the tractor cuts through the carpet of moss and lichen in the forest and carves a narrow trench into the sandy soil. Small bits of ice become visible. Even in hot July in Yakutia, the permafrost still comes to within a half a meter of the surface if it is well insulated from above.
In addition to the DT-75 and two other tractors, local officials have recruited a dozen men to help the 19 firefighters clear vegetation and prevent the backfire from spreading. As soon as the trench is dug, moss and brush are set on fire behind it with burning splashes of oil from a dropper lamp. It catches fire quickly and the smoke soon becomes unbearable. This goes on into the cool of the evening. On the way back, the day’s sad work is on full display: several kilometers of scorched earth.
“It hurts our hearts,” says Alexei Sakharov, 54, the community leader of Yert. “We always tell the leaders of Avialesookhrana: Dig the trenches closer to the actual forest fire, and start the backfire there,” he says. “After all, it takes many years for the forest to recover. The forest provides people here with everything – berries, firewood and timber, it nourishes and warms and protects.”
Sakharov wears a T-shirt with the Russian double-headed eagle, above his desk hang portraits of Putin and Yakutia leader Nikolaev. He is proud of his village. The community administration may only have an outhouse in a rickety wooden shack, but they have also had a fiber-optic cable to Berdigestyakh and 4G mobile internet for two years. Most private homes are connected to a central heating system, there’s a community center, a health center and a school with a boarding school where students are provided with a college prep high school education with a focus on physics and mathematics. Yert is a well-equipped village.
Since the fires began on July 8, Sakharov has had to ask fellow residents to help with the trench digging. Of course, there are plenty of other things people could be doing. The summers are so short here that every day has to be used to its fullest. Right now, the hay harvest is coming up. Residents also have to prepare for the harsh winter – the last one was unusually cold even by Yakutia’s standards. In Yert, the temperature dropped below minus 50 degrees Celsius for two months.
Three years ago, a fire came within 2 kilometers of the homes in Yert, and the elderly were evacuated to Berdigestyakh. “That was in our minds this time around,” Sakharov says, “but we waited because of the coronavirus pandemic.”
An Unprecedented Wave of Help
It appears that Yert has escaped the worst this time as well. Still, the forest fires in Yakutia will continue. The question is: When will the moment be reached when the annual forest fires are no longer considered normal? When they come to be seen as a harbinger of worse to come?
“Last year, the fires were still far away. Many people didn’t even know what a forest fire looks like or who puts it out. Only half had ever even heard of Avialesookhrana. They thought the Ministry of Emergency Situations would take care of it,” says firefighter Kapustin.
Now, an unprecedented wave of help is swelling. Chainsaws, shovels and canned goods are being donated, and a software company in Yakutia has asked Kolesov if there is anything bigger that he might need. “I said: Could you possibly buy a tractor?”
But the aid has also been accompanied by harsh criticism of the overstretched regional authorities. People resent Governor Nikolaev for dismissing concerned voices as “alarmists and agitators.” There have also been reproaches from Moscow – where satellite photos have been viewed showing far larger fires in Yakutia than the regional authorities had initially reported. The Environment Ministry referred the matter to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Conspiracy theories are also circulating that the fires were set as an excuse to cut wood to sell to China. That’s nonsense, says Kolesov – that may play a role in the regions bordering China, but not in impassable Yakutia.
Permafrost researcher Fedorov now wonders how the forest will recover from this year’s fires. He’s hoping for a hard, low-snow winter that does a good job of freezing the ground again. But it has become especially difficult to predict whether that will happen in Yakutia.