Irina Ivanova had just finished milking her five cows early on the morning of the 7th of August when she heard neighbours yelling, “The fire is coming!”
A wildfire that many had thought was under control had been whipped up by strong winds and was barreling toward her village of Byas-Kyuyol in the Russian region of Yakutia, in the heart of the biggest forest in the world. She ran inside to wake her son and his small children and came back out with a bucket of water to defend the single-story home and animal sheds.
But the fire was so intense she was forced to evacuate with a handful of possessions. On the way, she freed the cows to fend for themselves. It was too hot to reach the pigpen by that time; she heard the animals screaming as they were burned alive.
“When the fire came, you only feel fear. You can think of nothing else but fear,” she said when VICE News visited the village later that month.
Media coverage of the 2021 fire season has focused largely on infernos in Europe and the United States, including the record Dixie fire in California. But the wildfires in Russia this summer have been on an entirely different scale, releasing an estimated 970 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, compared to the 130 million tonnes released by the US fires, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. The Russian fires put out more CO2 in three months than Europe's biggest polluter Germany does in a year.
Despite these massive figures, President Vladimir Putin has said increased carbon absorption by forests and other ecosystems can compensate for his country's increasing industrial emissions.
Whereas countries like the United States and China have pledged to make huge cuts in carbon use, Russia, the world's fourth largest emitter, actually plans to increase emissions by more than 8 percent through 2050, according to the economic ministry's most recent strategy from 2019. It claims that this will be compensated by carbon uptake in its woodlands.
Russian forests are “already absorbing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents every year,” Vladimir Putin said at the St Petersburg Economic Forum in June. By fighting wildfires and reforesting damaged areas, Russia can increase this absorption capacity and even take a “special place” in the global market to sell carbon credits to polluters, he said.
The Russian delegation to the upcoming COP26 summit beginning on the 31st of October in Glasgow, Scotland, will likewise stress the absorption capacity of the country’s forests, as well as the need for new standards to calculate emissions and for nuclear to be considered green energy, Bloomberg reported this week. The Kremlin is reportedly worried that future European Union carbon border regulations – designed to stop emissions to be reduced in the EU only to be displaced to countries with more lax regulations – could force Russian exporters to pay for excess emissions.
In reality, scientists argue that Russia's absorption capacity is probably no more than half of the 2.5 billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent claimed by officials. And as wildfires increase, its forests are becoming a source rather than a sink of carbon dioxide, according to Alexei Yaroshenko, head of the forest programme at Greenpeace Russia.
“Right now [the authorities] are fighting fires after they've already gotten too big to control, the planting of trees on abandoned agricultural land is banned, and wild forests have almost no protective status,” he said. “If they're not going to do anything in any of these three areas then we won't be able to increase absorptive capacity very much.”
The catastrophic wildfires should raise questions to Russia about its national development strategy at the COP26 summit, said Georgy Safonov, director of the Centre for Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “Are you counting increasingly huge forest fires in your strategy, or not?” Safonov said. “Are you planning to improve the system of protecting forests to stop this huge release of carbon?”
Climate change is already changing the forest.
The Russian boreal forest, known here as the taiga, comprises a fifth of the world's forested area. For most of the year, Byas-Kyuyol is covered in snow; in fact, Yakutia is Russia's most frigid region. But that's slowly changing.
Last June, Verkhoyansk, another town in the region, which is known as the coldest permanently inhabited place on earth with temperatures reaching minus 67 degrees Celcius, set a new Arctic heat record of 38 degrees Celcius. The heatwave led to fires that consumed more than 60,000 square miles of Russian forest, an area larger than Florida.
Another hot and dry summer this year led to 70,000 square miles of forest burning nationwide, a new record since reliable satellite monitoring began in 2001, according to Greenpeace. That's more than the rest of the world’s wildfires combined.
At a site deep in the forest of eastern Yakutia, VICE News accompanied a group of firefighters sent in from other regions as they fought a losing battle to stop one of these wildfires. Swamps in the area had dried up, leaving a hellish landscape of tussocks that tripped up the men as they walked. A long-awaited tractor hadn't yet been able to reach the firefighters to plow a firebreak.
There was also nowhere in the vicinity to draw water for their backpack fire pumps, and the support helicopter was too busy spotting other fires to bring in more water from Aldan River. The firefighters sat helplessly as the conflagration surrounded the camp on three sides. Finally the radio crackled to life to call an emergency evacuation. Seventy tired, cursing men packed their tents and gear as the helicopter began ferrying them to another location.
Even Vitaly Vasilyev, a 12-year veteran of the Novosibirsk Aerial Forest Protection Service, was shocked by the size and intensity of the fires this year. He spent two months in Yakutia, twice as long as originally planned.
“When you fly in the helicopter, there's so much burned down… From the ground, I never thought so much could have burned,” he said. “It's all because of the weather. If it rained, even just a few drops, it would burn less. It wouldn't spread so much.”
Near Byas-Kyuyol, several wildfires merged to form what was at least the third-largest single fire in world history, according to satellite monitoring by Greenpeace Russia, behind only the Chinchaga fire of 1950 and the Great Fire of 1919 in Canada. Of the village's approximately 600 residents, at least 175 lost their homes. The regional and federal governments are now racing to rebuild the village before the frosts come in mid-October.
The boreal forest has always burned, a process that is needed to promote new growth and keep the ecosystem healthy. But these fires would typically creep through the larch, spruce and pine at a slow pace and leave many trees alive. Now, fires are now burning hotter, longer and covering more ground. They are also burning more frequently, which often turns a regenerative process into a destructive one. The taiga needs 50-100 years to recover after fire; some places are now burning every 10-30 years. This can result in the forest being replaced by shrubs and grass.
Yakutia is more sparsely populated than Alaska, and fires here rarely cause fatalities. This year, however, saw a number of blazes grow into crown fires that burned the canopy and spread with destructive speed. After one such fire near the village of Melzhekhsi, tractor driver Elbagi Igityan, who had volunteered to fight the fires, was found dead a few dozen yards from his vehicle. He hadn't been able to outrun the heat and smoke.
Wildfires have now burned more territory than average in Russia for three summers in a row, largely in Siberia. The main causes are increased temperatures and decreased soil moisture, according to Copernicus.
“Drier and hotter regional conditions—brought about by global warming—increase the flammability and fire risk of vegetation,” said Copernicus wildfire expert Mark Parrington. “This has led to very intense and fast-developing fires.”
These factors are only going to get worse. Russia is heating 2.5 times faster than the world as a whole, due mostly to a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. Essentially, as snow and ice melts, reflective white areas are replaced by dark plants and open water that absorb more solar radiation, which speeds up the warming still further.
The climate is changing so fast that wildfires have begun burning in the Arctic, which is largely treeless, swampy tundra. “Zombie fires” burning in peat beneath the surface can even survive the long winter and reawaken the next summer. This year, fires above the Arctic circle released more than 66 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Last year, they released even more, a record 244 million tonnes.
Locally, more wildfires means more smoke, which causes respiratory illness and can worsen COVID-19 complications. Air quality in the regional capital of Yakutsk was so bad in August that the governor told residents to stay inside. Smoke from Siberia reached the north pole, a rare occurrence.
Globally, more fires means more planet-warming emissions, and not just from the blazes themselves. Yakutia is often called the “kingdom of permafrost,” but wildfires can burn off the layer of ground vegetation that insulates this once permanently frozen ground from the sun. That could potentially speed up the thaw that's already taking place and further increase emissions, as microorganisms in the soil start producing carbon dioxide and methane.
“This is a big tragedy for our people, not only here but in the whole world,” said Maxim Trofimov of the Yakutsk scientific centre. “Due to forest fires and due to permafrost thaw, huge amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere.”
Russia needs to reform its forestry regulations and allocate more resources to clearing brush and setting controlled burns so wildfires don't have as much fuel, he said. Right now 47 percent of Yakutia's forests are still ripe to burn in coming years.
The country should also hire more firefighters and increase financing for aerial monitoring so that fires can be stopped before they grow too big to contain, fire spotter Anatoly Penkov told VICE News. Almost half of Russia's forests are “control zones” where fires are allowed to burn to save money and manpower, since they are far from human infrastructure.
“I would definitely increase the number of personnel,” Penkov said. “Provide them with good equipment of course. Tractors, all-terrain vehicles and of course decent aircraft.”
But regardless of resources, fighting fires will be an uphill struggle as long as the earth continues to warm, and more families like Irina Ivanova’s will suffer. Although the state is building her a new home, the future still seems uncertain. She isn’t sure how she and her husband can replace their tractor, which they need to stock hay for the winter.
“I'm sorry for my house, for everything that I've had at that time, my cattle, my garden, and for the feeling of hope and safety which I had, that I was living well,” Ivanova said. “It all burned down.”