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Wildfires around Lake Baikal are 'close to catastrophic', say WWF

By Olga Gertcyk
02 September 2015

But is climate change to blame, or local officials who went on vacation instead of fighting fires? 

'The rise in frequency and intensity of forest fires is one of the consequences of global climate change. Picture: Vitaly Grekov

The WWF has expressed concern at the wildfires now raging across Siberia, and called for a radical rethink from the authorities to prevent future carnage. But the director of monitoring and prevention at the Ministry of Emergencies pointed to irresponsible officials who, he alleged, chose to go on holiday rather than battle the summer wildfires.

'It's the result of a multitude of factors, natural and artificial alike,' said Viktor Klimkin. 'It hasn't been raining in some areas, the summer has been very dry and hot. There are strong winds blowing the fire at the same time. On top of that, some of regional officials preferred to go on holidays instead of working hard to stop fire. That's why the sources (of fire) which were not cut at the beginning have grown into large fire such as in Irkutsk region and Buryatia.' 

Declining to name the guilty officials, he said: 'I'm not a prosecutor or an investigator to name them.'

Wildfires on Baikal

'The territory of forests still burning continues growing. Over the last week they territories on fire almost doubled.' Picture: Scanex

Nikolai Shmatkov, Director of  WWF-Russia's forestry programme, said: 'The rise in frequency and intensity of forest fires is one of the consequences of global climate change. It will only get worse in the future. Forestry needs a set of measures to adapt to changing circumstances which are impossible to be put in place without investment in research and development, and their application.' 

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, some 450,000 hectares are ablaze across Russia with the worst-hit areas in Irkutsk region and the Republic of Buryatia - around Lake Baikal - and the Amur region and the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. 

'The situation with forest fires around Baikal, world's largest freshwater reservoir, is close to catastrophic,' said the WWF. 'Forests have been burning over the last month and a half, as a result, the lake and its shores are covered with smoke. The fire is particularly fierce in Irkutsk region and Buryatia, both regions account for about a half of all the fires stopped - over 200,000 hectares. 

Wildfires on Baikal


Wildfires on Baikal

'Forests have been burning over the last month and a half, as a result, the lake and its shores are covered with smoke. Pictures: Anton Klimov

'At the same time, the territory of forests still burning continues growing. Over the last week they territories on fire almost doubled. The situation in eastern regions of Russia is quite worrying too. The area covered by fires have increased to 73,000 hectares in Yakutia, and to 33,000 hectares in Amur region. 

'Experts say that the economy and environment have been hugely affected by the forest fire. Not only residential areas but also the wildlife are threatened.'

Alexander Bryukhanov, WWF forest coordinator warned that Siberia's famous coniferous forests - notably pine, fir and spruce - are being hit hardest. 'These sorts of trees don't have bark strong enough to protect from fire, and they recover very slowly after fire,' he said. 'Mid-sized mammals, such as fox, lynx, hare, marten and others are the most affected.' 

According to Rosleskhoz, the Federal Forestry Agency, wildfires have affected 2 million hectares of forest since the beginning of 'fire' season. But citing environmental researchers and scientists of Forestry Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, WWF suggests 'this figure is too low'. The WWF say 'underestimating the problem may lead to further growth of fires and aggravation of the situation in other Russian regions'. 

Wildfires on Baikal


Wildfires on Baikal


Wildfires on Baikal

'There has been a drought for 2 months in a row and +40C. And no drop of rain, I know that Buryatia is sunny, but not that much.' Pictures: Anton Klimov

At WWF's initiative, there is to be an extraordinary meeting of the Public Council at Rosleskhoz 'to discuss the situation and effective measures to change it and prevent a catastrophe'. 

Locals have expressed their emotions at the harrowing scenes as wildfires destroyed pristine forest, and at the seeming slowness of the response of some firefighters. 

Svetlana Stankevich, from Irkutsk, said: 'It's a horror!!! There is nothing to breathe and animals are dying. They walk outside the taiga, to the cities. There hasn't been any rain for almost 3 months... Am so sorry for animals, they are dying...'

Kristina Solonitsyna, from Ulan-Ude, said: 'The whole city is in smoke as if it was a thick fog. They still can't stop it. Nothing to breathe. There has been a drought for 2 months in a row and +40C. And no drop of rain, I know that Buryatia is sunny, but not that much.' 

Wildfires on Baikal


Wildfires on Baikal


Wildfires on Baikal

'The scale of the catastrophe is huge. Everything is burning!' Pictures: Anton Klimov

Volunteer firefighter: 'We couldn't work with the Ministry of emergencies because we are no-one to them. The scale of the catastrophe is huge. Everything is burning! The holiday season in Baikal is over, because everything is covered in smoke. Puchkov (the head of the ministry) said he could see the opposite shore of Baikal but that's impossible. We're joking about it. Obviously, we don't have full picture but witnesses say that, for example, Svyatoy Nos peninsula has burnt out by 40% and keeps burning.' 

Dmitry Tyukavin, from Irkutsk, said: 'I was upset about such a scene: when we were on the way to help the 3rd department I, myself, saw 3 fire trucks and a white KamAZ of the Ministry of emergencies parked at about 4pm. We spent 2 days there, but they were parked at all the times, I don't know the reason. Eventually, 3rd and 4th departments of forest protection service were bringing water and one more fire truck also was bringing water. And we are very grateful for that because there were times when we had no water left, or we were too far from each other. '

Ivan Truskalov, from Severobaikalsk, added: 'I am from Severbaykalsk, my acquaintances are not leaving home, saying it's impossible to breathe. They've been putting cloths soaked in water on their windows for the past 2 months.

Comments (2)

Shocking lack of ecological understanding demonstrated here!
Rick, USA
05/09/2015 21:40
2
0
Very sad to watch this. I really wish for rain, I wish I could send rain!
Tanya Doyle, Canada
04/09/2015 11:01
1
0
1

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