MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian military on Wednesday joined efforts to fight forest fires that have engulfed nearly 30,000 square kilometers (11,580 sq. miles) of territory in Siberia and the Russian Far East — an area the size of Belgium.
The move, which includes sending military transport planes and helicopters that can drop water on fires, came after an order from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian authorities have declared a state of emergency in five areas, including all of the Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk regions, which lie 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 (CAMS).
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 Donald Trump had spoken with Putin earlier in the day and “expressed concern over the vast wildfires afflicting Siberia.”
Russia’s agency for aerial forest protection, Avialesookhrana, said about 2,700 firefighters were working to put out the blazes but it said about 28,000 square kilometers (10,800 sq. miles) of the fires were in difficult-to-reach areas. Those forest fires, it said, were not being fought because the costs and risks of doing so were higher than the potential damages the fires could cause to unpopulated areas.
Russia’s vast stretches of forest have often been hit by widespread fires in the summer months. 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.