MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has sent army soldiers to help fight forest fires that have burned nearly 12,000 square miles in Siberia and the Far East — an area the size of Belgium.
Russian officials said Thursday that the fires have spread to remote areas of Siberia that firefighters cannot reach.
Avialesookhrana, Russia’s aerial forest protection service, said Thursday more than 11,850 square miles are on fire, with the vast majority in areas that are hard to reach and where potential damage is likely to be less than the cost of fighting them.
Although the fires have not hit populated areas, heavy smoke from them is affecting about 800 communities, officials said, including the large cities of Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Chita.
Meteorologists say rain is expected in some of the burning areas, but not enough to put out the fires, state news agency Tass reported.
The Russian military sent transport planes and helicopters that can drop water on fires, on orders from President Vladimir Putin.
Authorities declared a state of emergency in five areas, including all of the Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk regions, north of Mongolia. Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, which stretches all the way to the Kara Sea and the Arctic Ocean, can be seen blanketed in smoke by satellite photos from NASA and Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
No injuries or evacuations have been reported so far from the fires, many of which appear to have been started by lightning strikes in “dry thunderstorms” in which precipitation disperses before reaching the ground.
But the fires, which were being spread by strong winds, have produced heavy smoke has clogged the air in several cities, including Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million in southwestern Siberia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited the city of Krasnoyarsk on Wednesday and gave a glum assessment of the forest fires.
“The situation is difficult. Many forests are burning; smog and smoke are observed over many populated areas. The prognosis at this moment is not happy,” he said.
Late Wednesday, the White House issued a statement saying President Trump had spoken with Putin earlier in the day and “expressed concern over the vast wildfires afflicting Siberia.”
Avialesookhrana said about 2,700 firefighters were working to put out the blazes but it said about 10,800 sq. miles of the fires were in hard-to-reach areas.
Russia’s vast stretches of forest have often been hit by widespread fires in the summer. This year, however, the world experienced the warmest June on record.
“It’s not for the first time that we’re having this catastrophe in our country,” said Mikhail Kreindlin, a Greenpeace activist in Moscow. “Why there is so much attention to it this year is because the smoke from the fires has reached the cities, with activists who (have) started to raise the issue.”
Protests demanding action against the heavy smoke from the fires were planned for Thursday in Moscow outside the Ecology Ministry. Greenpeace also planned to submit a petition with more than 200,000 signatures to the Russian government urging a better response to wildfires and more preventive action.