EXPLAINER: What's fueling Russia's 'unprecedented' fires?

FILE - In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, volunteers prepare to douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, volunteers prepare to douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov, File)

Credit: Ivan Nikiforov

Credit: Ivan Nikiforov

Thousands of wildfires engulf broad expanses of Russia each year, destroying forests and shrouding territories in acrid smoke

MOSCOW (AP) — Thousands of wildfires engulf broad expanses of Russia each year, destroying forests and shrouding regions in acrid smoke.

Northeastern Siberia has had particularly massive fires this summer amid record-setting heat. Many other regions across the vast country also have battled wildfires.

Some factors behind Russia's endemic wildfires and their consequences:

RECORD HEAT

In recent years, Russia has recorded high temperatures that many scientists regard as a clear result of climate change. The hot weather has caused permafrost to melt and fueled a growing number of fires.

The vast Sakha-Yakutia region of Siberia has had a long spell of extremely hot and dry weather this summer, with temperatures reaching 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) and setting records for several days. The heat wave helped spark hundreds of fires, which so far have scorched more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land, making it the worst-affected region in Russia.

The fires have shrouded Yakutia’s cities, towns and villages in thick smoke, forcing authorities to briefly suspend flights at the regional capital’s airport. The Defense Ministry deployed transport planes and helicopters to help douse the flames.

Fedot Tumusov, a member of the Russian parliament who represents the region, called the blazes “unprecedented” in their scope.

MONITORING DIFFICULTIES

The forests that cover huge areas of Russia make monitoring and quickly spotting new fires a daunting task.

In 2007, a federal network to spot fires from aircraft was disbanded and had its assets turned over to regional authorities. The much-criticized change resulted in the program's rapid deterioration.

The government later reversed the move and reestablished the federal agency in charge of monitoring forests from the air. However, its resources remain limited, making it hard to survey the massive forests of Siberia and the Far East.

NEGLECT OF FIRE SAFETY RULES

While some wildfires are sparked by lightning, experts estimate that over 70% of them are caused by people, from carelessly discarding cigarettes to abandoned campfires, but there are other causes.

Authorities regularly conduct controlled burns, setting a fire to clear the way for new vegetation or to deprive unplanned wildfires of fuel. Observers say such intentional burns often are poorly managed and sometimes trigger bigger blazes instead of containing them.

Farmers also use the same technique to burn grass and small trees on agricultural lands. Such burns regularly get out of control.

ARSON

Activists and experts say that fires are often set deliberately to cover up evidence of illegal lumbering or to create new places for timber harvesting under the false pretext of clearing burned areas.

Activists in Siberia and the Far East allege such arson is driven by strong demand for timber in the colossal Chinese market, and they have called for a total ban on timber exports to China.

Officials have acknowledged the problem and pledged to tighten oversight, but Russia's far-flung territory and regulatory loopholes make it hard to halt the illegal activity.

Critics blame the 2007 forest code that gave control over timberlands to regional authorities and businesses, eroding centralized monitoring, fueling corruption and contributing to illegal tree-cutting practices that help spawn fires.

CONTROVERSIAL REGULATIONS

Russian law allows authorities to let wildfires burn in certain areas if the potential damage is considered not worth the costs of containing them.

Critics have long assailed the provision, arguing it encourages inaction by authorities and slows firefighting efforts so a blaze that could have been extinguished at a relatively small cost is often allowed to burn uncontrolled.

“They eventually have to extinguish it anyway, but the damage and the costs are incomparable,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.

LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES

In addition to destroying trees, wildfires also kill wildlife and pose a threat to human health by polluting the air.

Carbon emissions from fires and the destruction of forests, which are a major source of oxygen, also contribute to global warming and its potentially catastrophic impact.

This year's fires in Siberia already have emitted more carbon than those in some previous years, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

He said the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other Russian regions are particularly harmful in terms of emissions because peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.

"Then it’s releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere,” Parrington said.

While pledging adherence to the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often underline the key role played by their forests in slowing down global warming. However, regular wildfires have the opposite effect, dramatically boosting carbon emissions.

“They emphasize that huge areas are covered by forests but neglect the effect of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from fires,” Greenpeace's Kreindlin said.

FILE - In this file photo provided by Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service, a firefighter douses a forest fire in Yakutia region, Russia, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
FILE - In this file photo provided by Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service, a firefighter douses a forest fire in Yakutia region, Russia, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 16, 2021 file photo, firefighters work at the scene of forest fire near Andreyevsky village outside Tyumen, western Siberia, Russia. Wildfires in Siberia are releasing record amounts of greenhouse gases, scientists say, contributing to global warming. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Maksim Slutsky, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, June 16, 2021 file photo, firefighters work at the scene of forest fire near Andreyevsky village outside Tyumen, western Siberia, Russia. Wildfires in Siberia are releasing record amounts of greenhouse gases, scientists say, contributing to global warming. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Maksim Slutsky, File)

Credit: Maksim Slutsky

Credit: Maksim Slutsky

FILE - In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, a volunteer walks to douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately.Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, a volunteer walks to douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately.Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov, File)

Credit: Ivan Nikiforov

Credit: Ivan Nikiforov

FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, volunteers and employees of the Yakutlesresurs extinguish a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, volunteers and employees of the Yakutlesresurs extinguish a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, a volunteer throws the earth to smother a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, a volunteer throws the earth to smother a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

FILE - In this Monday, July 19, 2021 file photo, smoke from a forest fire covers Yakustk, the capital of the  republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Yevgeny Sofroneyev, File)
FILE - In this Monday, July 19, 2021 file photo, smoke from a forest fire covers Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Yevgeny Sofroneyev, File)

Credit: Yevgeny Sofroneyev

Credit: Yevgeny Sofroneyev

FILE - In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, volunteers douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, July 17, 2021 file photo, volunteers douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov, File)

Credit: Ivan Nikiforov

Credit: Ivan Nikiforov

FILE -  In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, volunteers and employees of the Yakutlesresurs dig a moat to stop a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, volunteers and employees of the Yakutlesresurs dig a moat to stop a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, employees of the Yakutlesresurs rest as they dig a moat to stop a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, July 18, 2021 file photo, employees of the Yakutlesresurs rest as they dig a moat to stop a forest fire outside Magaras village 87 km. (61 miles) west of Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Alexey Vasilyev, File)

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

Credit: Alexey Vasilyev

FILE - In this file photo taken from video released on Sunday, July 18, 2021 by Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service, a Russian Emergency Ministry's Beriev multipurpose amphibious aircraft Be-200 takes-off to drop water during extinguishing a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also knows as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service via AP, File)
FILE - In this file photo taken from video released on Sunday, July 18, 2021 by Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service, a Russian Emergency Ministry's Beriev multipurpose amphibious aircraft Be-200 takes-off to drop water during extinguishing a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also knows as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service via AP, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

In this photo taken from video released on Sunday, July 18, 2021 by Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service, a Russian Emergency Ministry's Beriev multipurpose amphibious aircraft Be-200 drops water during extinguishing a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also knows as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service via AP, File)
In this photo taken from video released on Sunday, July 18, 2021 by Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service, a Russian Emergency Ministry's Beriev multipurpose amphibious aircraft Be-200 drops water during extinguishing a forest fire in the republic of Sakha also knows as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Russia has been plagued by widespread forest fires, blamed on unusually high temperatures and the neglect of fire safety rules, with Sakha-Yakutia in northeastern Siberia being the worst affected region lately. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Situations Ministry press service via AP, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

FILE - In this Sunday, June 13, 2021 file photo, this image taken from video provided by Russian Emergency Ministry Sunday, June 13, 2021 shows a IL-76 aircraft loading with water at an airfield in Irkutsk region, Eastern Siberia, Russia. To eliminate the emergency situation associated with forest fires in the Katangsky region, an Il-76 aircraft of the Ministry of Emergencies of Russia arrived in the Irkutsk region. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, June 13, 2021 file photo, this image taken from video provided by Russian Emergency Ministry Sunday, June 13, 2021 shows a IL-76 aircraft loading with water at an airfield in Irkutsk region, Eastern Siberia, Russia. To eliminate the emergency situation associated with forest fires in the Katangsky region, an Il-76 aircraft of the Ministry of Emergencies of Russia arrived in the Irkutsk region. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP, File)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

FILE - In this Monday, July 19, 2021 file photo, smoke from a forest fire covers Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Yevgeny Sofroneyev, File)
FILE - In this Monday, July 19, 2021 file photo, smoke from a forest fire covers Yakustk, the capital of the republic of Sakha also known as Yakutia, Russia Far East. Each year, thousands of wildfires engulf wide swathes of Russia, destroying forests and shrouding broad territories in acrid smoke. This summer has seen particularly massive fires in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia following unprecedented heat. (AP Photo/Yevgeny Sofroneyev, File)

Credit: Yevgeny Sofroneyev

Credit: Yevgeny Sofroneyev