For Russia, the main concern now isn’t just being one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic, although 166,000 cases and over 1,500 deaths have been confirmed so far.
Massive areas of Siberia are now on fire, as spring has brought high temperatures across the country. While this happens every year, the number of fires is much larger than usual, and the government is focused on dealing with the coronavirus.
A total of 3,339 fires were recorded at the end of April, much higher than the 1,960 registered on the same time last year. They now cover 477,000 hectares, while last year they only reached 382,000, according to Russia’s Federal Forest Agency.
Nine Siberian regions have been affected by these wildfires, with clouds of smoke sweeping across the Siberian landscape. The fires in the Amur region have consumed one and half times more territory than last year, while in Transbaikal the blaze is three times larger.
Nevertheless, the worst-hit region so far is Krasnoyarsk — the third largest city in Siberia — where the blaze has engulfed 10 times more territory than April last year, according to Russian Emergencies Minister Evgeny Zinichev.
“A less snowy winter, an abnormal winter and insufficient soil moisture are factors that create the conditions for the transition of landscape fires to settlements,” Zinichev told President Vladimir Putin, according to Siberian Times.
The primary causes of the fires are unauthorized and uncontrolled agriculture fires. But extreme heat is also expanding the flames. In recent days, temperatures have reached spikes of as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), way above what’s normal for this time of year.
The coronavirus could also be making matters even worse. Russia’s lockdown started with a focus on Moscow in late March and has since spread to the rest of the country. It’s also been extended until May 11. Many city residents left for the countryside to have more space and have been ignoring fire safety rules, according to the Siberian Times. Sergei Anoprienko, head of the federal forest agency, directly blamed the coronavirus lockdown for the rise in fires.
“People self-isolated outdoors and forgot about fire safety rules. In some regions, the temperature is already around 30ºC, and people just can’t keep themselves in their apartments,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told regional and emergency officials that they must be ready for emergencies on wildfires. “All the efforts are now primarily concentrated on countering the spread of the coronavirus. However, this must not divert our attention from other potential threats to people’s lives and safety,” he said.
What’s happening in Siberia could be a preview of what’s to come in other parts of the world. The Amazon’s dry season is about to get started and could be worse than last year’s dangerous fire season. In western North America, wildfire season is also just around the corner.