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Forest fires Russia

Forest fires in the past

Long periods of dry and hot weather lead to increasing probability of forest fires. They may cause substantial damage. However, the prime source of about 70% of forest fires is violation of fire safety rules by people while in forest. The number of days with ‘high or greater’ flammability has noticeably increased, in particular, in the central part of European Russia, in southern parts of Western Siberia and in the Far East (1).

The fires of 2010

In 2010, western Russia experienced an intense heat wave from early July through to the first half of August, having already been subject to significantly above average temperature in the previous 2 months. In Moscow, temperatures were 7.6°C above average for July, making it the hottest July on record by 2°C. On 29th July, Moscow recorded its hottest ever temperature of 38.2°C, the highest since the records began 130 years ago. There were also 33 consecutive days above 30°C in the city (6).

According to experts the normal west-to-east movement of weather systems was blocked, a naturally occurring weather phenomenon common to Eurasia, and this led to the persistently quiescent weather in the summer of 2010. According to experts it is not known whether, or to what extent, climate change affects the frequency or intensity of blocking during summer. It has been stated, however, that the 2010 situation, where blocking has existed over western Russia on virtually every day from the beginning of July until the middle of August, is highly unusual (5).

Official and unofficial statistics on the impact of the 2010 fires differ strongly. According to official statistics 65 people died and 1,068 suffered injuries due to effects of the fires. The unofficial numbers are much higher. For example, in Moscow alone the daily mortality rate jumped from 360-380 people in July 2009 to 700 people in July 2010 (5,840 total monthly increase) (5). Around 14,000 deaths resulted from the summer heat, with half of them in and around Moscow alone (7).

The numbers in provincial Russia may be higher than in Moscow because Moscow, unlike many small towns and villages, was spared of the direct effect of the fires. Besides, damage to the affected population’s health did not end when the fires abated; for many smoke inhalation and excessive heat will have a long-term health effect (5).

According to the Russian government, over 3,500 people lost their homes. Drought, high temperatures, and fires destroyed one-third of Russia’s 2010 grain crop. The fires, drought, and heat affected cropland (over 13.3 million hectares) in 41 Russian provinces. Estimates of total economic losses due to the forest fires vary from $15 billion (6,7) to $300 billion (5). The latter number also includes the loss of timber (5).

The fires have caused wide-spread destruction of wildlife habitat. The fires have altered the makeup of Central Russia’s forests for several generations. Oak and ash forests will take centuries to grow back. The trees that withstood the flames may fall to pests and fungi that thrive in a charred forest. The full effect on the environment of widely used fluorine-containing fire retardants will not be known for several years; the chemicals that helped to stop the fires are known to cause genetic mutations in living organisms and contribute to ozone layer depletion (5).

Forest fires in the future

The analysis of model simulations of the fire risk indices in summer compared to satellite data not only indicate the growth of fire risk in the 21st century, but the high level of fire risk for separate Russian regions already at the present time (2,3). For the European territory of Russia the southern border of forests correlates well with the border of moderate risk of fires for modern climate. Based on model calculations of changes of the meteorological regime (trends of temperature and hydrological regimes), the potential fire hazard is expected to increase especially at southern latitudes by the end of the 21st century (2).

The number of days with the flammability risk will increase by 5 days per season over most of the country by 2015. Most of Russia is covered by woods. In this part the number of days per year with potential ‘high or greater’ risk will increase by 20–60% in the southern parts of European Russia and Western Siberia, at middle latitudes in eastern Siberia and the Far East (1).

Adaptation strategies

Remote (plane, satellite) operational monitoring of forests, introduction of more efficient means for suppression of forest fires, and strengthening of respective operative services raise opportunities for effective adaptation to forest fires. Development and implementation of programs stimulating people to follow the rules of fire prevention safety while visiting forests, strengthening the nature protection sections in the undergraduate and graduate educational programs are important components of an adaptation strategy that may decrease the risks of forest fires (1).

Protection of drained peat lands against fire in European Russia is an important regional problem which requires the restoration of drainage systems and the regulation of water regimes in such territories (4).

The fires of 2010

The examination of Russia’s response to the 2010 fires reveals two important findings (5):

  • the government fire fighting and other emergency forces were not capable of effectively preventing and containing the fires;
  • ordinary Russian citizens acting in ad hoc fire fighting units proved to be a formidable force in combating the fires.

The Public Commission on Investigation of Causes and Consequences of the Wildfires in Russia in 2010 concluded that, even though it would have been impossible to avoid a sharp increase in the number of wild fires during such a long and severe drought in 2010, it was the government policy that led to the fire catastrophe of 2010. Poor policy decisions aided by the severe weather created a “perfect firestorm” in Russia in 2010 (5).

The Russian government responded with several policy initiatives to improve forest fire management on the short-term (5):

  • more investments in fire suppression and prevention equipment;
  • organizational changes in federal responsibilities for fire prevention and fire fighting;
  • more transparency and accountability by posting satellite photographs of all territories affected by forest fires on the internet.

If the 2010 fires are a sign of things to come, the Russian government needs to be prepared for a significant investment into numerous adaptation measures that go beyond typical fire safety and prevention (5).

References

The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Russia.

  1. Roshydromet (2008)
  2. Mokhov et al. (2006)
  3. Mokhov (2008)
  4. Zeidelman and Shvarov (2002), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  5. Sidortsov (2011)
  6. WMO (2011), in: Met Office Hadley Centre (2011)
  7. Maier et al. (2011), in: Met Office Hadley Centre (2011)
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