by Theo MERZ
MOSCOW, Russia (AFP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called in the army to fight forest fires that have been raging across vast expanses of Siberia for days, enveloping entire cities in black smoke.
Environmentalists have warned that the scale of the blazes could accelerate global warming, aside from any immediate effects on the health of inhabitants.
Around three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land in the centre and east of the country were in the grip of fires on Wednesday, authorities said.
The acrid smoke has affected not only small settlements but also major cities in Western Siberia and the Altai region, as well as the Urals such as Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg, and disrupted air travel.
“After reviewing a report from the emergency situations minister, Putin instructed the ministry of defence to join the effort to extinguish the fires,” the Kremlin’s press service told Russian media.
Some 2,700 firefighters were already working to tackle the blazes, Interfax news agency reported.
The defence ministry told news agencies that 10 planes and 10 helicopters had been dispatched to the Krasnoyarsk region, one of the worst affected.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised help and insisted the fires represented no “immediate danger” for the population, during a visit to Krasnoyarsk on Wednesday.
“There are objective problems: the issue of distances, hard-to-reach regions and factors specific to this year,” he said on live television.
The head of Russia’s consumer safety watchdog, Anna Popova, meanwhile said the black smoke did not pose “major risks” to people’s health.
‘Visible climate changes’
The Kremlin press service said the armed forces in the Irkutsk region, also badly hit, had been put on high alert, without providing further details of military involvement.
The fires, triggered by dry thunderstorms in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), were spread by strong winds, Russia’s federal forestry agency said.
States of emergency have been declared in five Russian regions.
People living there have uploaded images to social media showing roads hazy with smoke and the sun barely visible in the sky.
The majority of the fires, however, are raging in remote or inaccessible areas. Authorities make the decision to extinguish them only if the estimated damage exceeds the cost of the operation.
Maksim Yakovenko, the chief of Russia’s Federal Service for Meteorology, warned that the blazes would become “worse and worse from year to year as a sign of the visible climate changes everywhere, including in Russia”.
Temperatures in Siberia were already eight to 10 degrees Celsius above average for the season, he said.
“We are expecting long-lasting heatwaves, the drying-up of soil and therefore an increase in temperatures at a faster pace than the global average,” Yakovenko said.
Spreading summer fires
A petition launched on change.org a week ago calling on authorities to do more to tackle the fires has gathered more than 800,000 signatures.
Summer fires are common in Russia but this year they have spread further than usual.
According to the Russian branch of Greenpeace, almost 12 million hectares of forest have been burnt this year — causing significant CO2 emissions and reducing the future capacity of forest to absorb the carbon dioxide.
A spokesman for the environmental organization told the Echo of Moscow radio station that the involvement of the military would not “drastically change” the situation with the forest fires.
Greenpeace spokesman Grigory Kuksin said deploying army units to the forest could do more harm to the operation than good.
He also criticized authorities for what he said was a delayed response to the crisis.
© Agence France-Presse