My home was on fire.
Wildfires came with vengeance in late July, engulfed the forest and turned it to cinders.
It is a place with a long memory: centenarian pines reached to the skies, mantled the mountain’s spine like a rustling shroud, deep-green, dark-green, emerald-green. In winter, they covered themselves with sparkling white, thick and noble. It was a home: for foresters, for lynxes, for bears, for me, for globeflowers. The globeflowers: they glowed like gems, little lights in the malachite of lush greenery. In bloom, they turned into a sea, mirroring the scorching copper sun.
We call Siberian globeflowers zharki. “Little fires”.
We say that taiga sings. The choir of the trees is not a hymn nor a dirge; it’s a lullaby, and with it, a memory. This is where loneliness ends. For generations of exiles and vagabonds, nomads and runaways; for me. You can go to the past and gather this memory like seashells, fragment by fragment, if you simply walk south along the Yenisei river, past Sayan Mountains, past Venuses of Mal’ta, then circling back north. There you will find their (our)—our (my)—my loneliness buried.
Now, all that is left are ashes, remnants of what once was beautiful.
According to the Aerial Forest Protection Service, on August 20, 2019, eighty-five forest fires ran amok in Russia, particularly in Siberia and the Far East.1 The largest area ablaze was Krasnoyarsk Krai, my home region; there were fifty-three centers of ignition.
Three days earlier the number was one hundred and twelve. A month before, it was one hundred and twenty-six.
At the end of July, the fires were still largely ignored, because, as the authorities put it, “There is no threat to settlements and objects of the economy, and the predicted cost of extinguishing fires exceeds the predicted damage caused by them”, even though the combusting area was approaching three million hectares.
A significant part of the burning land was in so-called ‘control zones’—remote areas deemed uninhabited. In 2015, a law was passed establishing the right of regional authorities to determine firefighting in these territories economically inexpedient. This formally legalized the practice that historically developed from regional poverty—there was no money, no fuel, no planes to land firefighters in remote territories. In Soviet times, many fires were not extinguished—there was no satellite monitoring, and no one counted them.
The regional officials refused to extinguish fires, but they were not the only ones to blame. Federal funding for forest protection is calculated based on the acreage of areas marked for conservation, excluding control zones. Expected costs in control zones, in the logic of the authorities, are always higher than the damage done. Damage is measured at the minimum value of the wood, if it were to be cut and processed for lumber (and if that process is considered economically infeasible, there is no damage). The region must either spend its own funds to put out fires in control zones or do nothing.
My home was on fire, and they said fire cost nothing.
So the governors are officially entitled to refuse to extinguish wildfires if it’s not economically profitable. The head of the Federal Forestry Agency explained it this way: “See for yourself: the closest tanker plane’s base point is 500 kilometers from the fire in the taiga. It flies back and forth, dumps a small amount of water. We’ll go bankrupt using aviation for such purposes”. The Krasnoyarsk Krai governor said: It’s a common natural phenomenon which is pointless, and perhaps even harmful, to fight. “If we have a snowstorm in winter, it doesn’t occur to anyone to melt the icebergs to make the weather warmer.”
I watch the forest burn—full of horror and rage, and something sharper and more terrible: loss.
My home was on fire, and they said it was economically unprofitable to save it.
The truth is: the control zones are not as deserted as they’re trying to assure us— there are settlements on their borders, roads and developed logging forests. Wildfires roared in a twenty-kilometer radius near the nine settlements in Evenkia. The closest fire to the village of Kuyumba burned five kilometers away; ashes fell on the courtyards, breathing was a struggle, and at two or three hundred meters nothing was visible.
It is impossible to estimate how many animals have died in the fire. Residents of the northern territories saw animals on the roads, driven away from the taiga, more and more. They came to settlements. For several days, a bear lived in one of the villages after running away from the burning boondocks.
The flaming sea of globeflowers, “little fires”, now was a hellfire circle.
Smoke overtook several neighboring territories at once. Unlike the usual sequence, when smoke goes north, that year it turned west, to the more populated parts of the country. Sunday morning, July 21, when Novosibirsk was overtaken by smog, the radio broadcasted: nothing to worry about; it is not smoke, but mist.
People were suffocating, and the first motion was to say that everything was fine.
NASA published a photo showing a smoke plume spreading over the Krasnoyarsk Krai. A significant part of Siberia and the Ural cities were under a dense, cindered veil.
The extent to which forest fires affect human health is still poorly understood, with the exception that products of combustion can settle in the lungs and contribute to the development of asthma and allergies. The air in Novosibirsk was certainly damaging: the maximum permissible concentration of suspended particles per million was exceeded by 1.5 times.2 People complained of the acrid taste of smog. There were noticeably fewer insects, since the aerosol curtain created by smoke blocked the functioning of the midge’s nervous and respiratory systems.3 The number of ambulance calls due to smoke increased by over 15%.4 Cinders can lead to an increase in mortality from chronic respiratory diseases, an increase in mortality among the elderly, and an increase in miscarriages. But it’s impossible to attach these deaths to a specific fire, and it’s impossible to get any insurance or compensation.
People were suffocating and there was no one to blame.
Why did fires occur?
Officially, the fires were explained by abnormal weather: high temperature in the absence of rains, dry thunderstorms, short snow cover in winter. They talked about thirty-degree heat and lightning strikes.
But Russian WWF, on the contrary, claimed that in 95% of cases, forest fires are anthropogenic.5 From natural causes—lightning or abnormal heat—conflagrations rarely appear.
Most of the fires are man-made; they occurred mainly as a result of forest felling, because of the burning of logging residues. Often, people deliberately light fires to get rid of old, dry grass. Bonfires and cigarette butts can also contribute. It’s a small contribution, but a contribution nonetheless; one more zharok on the funeral pyre.
These small fires could definitely have been put out right away, but the local authorities refused to, leading to the large outbreaks, which turned into an unsolvable problem: all we could do was wait for the rain. The situation got out of control precisely because it was decided not to extinguish the fires while they were small. Officials tried to attribute everything to nature, because it was convenient to look for an excuse in the elements, in processes that we cannot control.
My home was on fire, and it was impossible to save it.
What for the future?
According to Greenpeace, by the beginning of August 2019, fires in Siberia reached record levels in the entire history of observation, since 2001: in acreage of burning area, burnt woodland, and the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.6 Each year, on average, three times more forest dies in fires than the forestry industry processes. Forest resources are already scarce—because of fires and because of logging—and it will only grow worse.
The unusually powerful and rapid spread of fires is connected to the environmental situation. Climate change leads to more extreme weather events: somewhere it rains for a long time, somewhere, on the contrary, severe droughts occur, leading to wildfires. In Russia, the Irkutsk region faced both in 2019: at the beginning of summer, the flood, then—savage forest fires.
Wildfires happen in nature. Each ecosystem has its disturbance regime. For pinewood, fires occur once every 50-100 years as part of normal forest dynamics. Some areas burn out, and new ecological communities hatch upon them, while protected areas remain in good condition. The pine has thick bark, and it’s quite resistant to fires. In burned areas, windthrows wrest out dead roots, exposing new soil—and plants that cannot germinate in dense underlay sprout here. On this mineralized surface, they can thrive. This process contributes to the normal functioning of large ecological systems.
When industrialized humans intervene in this system, instead of igniting once every 100 years, the forest combusts once every two or three years, and in some places even more often. And the climate imbalance means minimal foci of ignition lead to much greater consequences. A technogenic wildfire is not a fire that renews the ecosystem—but one that degrades and in places even eliminates it. Zharki will grow here no longer.
Climate change is merciless, and it prisons us all.
It’s been more than a year since wildfires came. Many forests over the world experienced the same loss and sorrow and ire.
The fire came with a vengeance, not just for wood, but for us, with grief and resentment, so sharp and full of contempt.
The fires come from tradition, ignorance, insufficient funding, thoughtless legislation. From illegal logging, littering, a carefree attitude to nature. From poor communication. And most of all: from an unwillingness to see the problem as a problem until it knocks on the door with lurid fists.
The fire comes from corporations that turn the atmosphere into a greenhouse. They cut down trees, strip off their bark, flay, manufacture, grind, kiln, soak, compress, make paper and write on it about the terrible state of the forests.
The fires come from us. Because we burn logging residues, because we leave bonfires, because we throw cigarette butts, and because we refuse to extinguish what can be extinguished. All this—in conditions of heat, of drought and strong wind —grows more extreme and more dangerous.
The fire comes from officials, from the government; from the comforting thought that fighting natural phenomena is pointless (and perhaps even harmful). From our failure to consider nature as a fundamentally essential resource, rather than as something that can be priced and sold.
Taiga, somehow, forgave us so much. It forgave us Gulags, and katorga, and Decembrists, and hidden bones, and taking and taking and taking and never taking enough. I wonder if it forgives being neglected.
We say that taiga sings. The choir of the trees is not a hymn nor a dirge; it’s a lullaby, and with it, a memory.
Now my home is on fire; we cannot redeem it.