Wildfires Siberia
© Trans-Baikal Volunteer Forest Firefighters
Wildfires in Siberia
People are flouting coronavirus lockdown and starting fires, warn officials.

Disturbing pictures and video shows the scale of wildfires engulfing Siberia and the Russian Far East after the winter snow melt.

With the government's focus on coronavirus, President Vladimir Putin called for vigilance over the annual challenge from forest and steppe fires worsening due to climate warming.

Emergencies Minister Evgeny Zinichev warned in a video conference with the president that a combination of factors now poses a threat to many regions of Russia.

Baikal wildfire
© Pictures from the Republic of Tuva by Tuva Ministry of Emergencies
In Krasnoyarsk region ten times as much territory was ablaze compared to the same time last year, in Trans-Baikal region three times as much land is hit amounting to 200,000 hectares, in the Amur Region the number of outbreaks increased by one and a half times.
'A critical situation with fires has developed in Siberia and the Far East,' he warned.

In Krasnoyarsk region ten times as much territory was ablaze on 27 April compared with last year, Zinichev said. In TransBaikal three times as much land is hit amounting to 200,000 hectares. In the Amur Region, the number of outbreaks increased by one and a half times.

'The main reason, of course, is unauthorised and uncontrolled agricultural fires,' he told the president. '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 spoke of abnormally hot weather and strong winds which seriously complicated the threat.

But he called for tougher punishments for those starting fires which got out of control, and caused 'significant damage or even death'.
Irkutsk wildfires
© EMERCOM Irkutsk region
Aftermath of the Irkutsk wildfires.
In April, fires hit Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Altai, Trans-Baikal, Tomsk, Omsk, and Krasnoyarsk regions as well as Altai Republic.

Some 50 houses were destroyed in Novosibirsk region and 27 in Kemerovo. All residents were evacuated.

Both Novosibirsk and Chita suffered smoke pollution from the fires.

Sergei Anoprienko, head of the federal forest agency Rosleskhoz, directly blamed the coronavirus lockdown for the rise in fires.

'People self-isolated outdoors and forgot about fire safety rules,' he said.

'In some regions, the temperature is already around 30C, and people just can't keep themselves in their apartments.

'People rushed outdoors, and as a result we have a surge of thermal points.'
firefighters Tuva
© EMERCOM Tuva
Military firefighters in the Republic of Tuva.
Humans were the main cause of fires, including burning of dry grass by farmers, even though this has been banned, he said.

'The most difficult situation is now in Trans-Baikal region and Buryatia,' said Anoprienko.

An emergency mode has been in place since mid-April in TransBaikal.

'Despite all the regulatory prohibitions, and the agricultural fires have been banned since 2015, people are burning dry grass. Today there are 75 forest fires, 73 of which are federal forest territory.

'In total, on April 28 of this year, 3,339 outbreaks were recorded, compared with last year - 1,960. The area covered by fires since the beginning of the year is 477,000 hectares. Last year, on this day was 382,000 hectares.'
wildfire Trans-Baikal
© Pavel Pilot
Roe deer pictured escaping wildfire in the Trans-Baikal region near Arakhley lakes.
He spoke as Russia is going into the annual May holidays spanning the period 1-11 May, and while unprecedented lockdown measures are imposed across the country, many people are expected to flee their towns and cities for the countryside.

'An abnormally warm winter, an arid spring, and the human factor have made adjustments to our forecasts,' he said. 'In May - June, a dangerous period usually begins in Siberia. Regions at risk are, as usual, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk regions, Khakassia and Tuva republics (and) Omsk, Novosibirsk and Tomsk regions.

'We can keep talking about the forecast for a very long time, but the actual fire situation will literally depend on us and you - on how we will behave.'

In some regions winds of up to 80km an hour coupled with temperatures of 25C are spreading fires.

Resident of village Ivan-Ozero village, Pavel Kobelev, told Chita.ru that the fires on the border with Buryatia started since on 5 April.

He showed officials the fires on a map and filmed them with a drone, but claimed they did not react.

As a result to April 16 the fire came close to villages near the Arakhley lakes, and the smoke covered Chita city.

The fire was extinguished on 18 April 18 four or five days later there were new outbreaks.

Currently around 600 people are fire fighting, with local residents assisting despite the quarantine restrictions.

Locals in Lesnaya are battling for the second week stop infernos reaching nearby fuel storages including at a local military facility.

In Irkutsk region, close to Lake Baikal, cases of arson have been established.

Dear the village of Zarechnoye, officials found traces of flammable liquid linked to forest. Arrests have been made.

A big wildfire in Shelekhov district was caused by an unattended campfire left by people who rafted down river despite the lockdown.

The arsonists will be fined not only the amount of damage caused, but also the cost of extinguishing the fire, which can count up to several hundred thousand roubles.

In Irkutsk region, the mayor of Ust-Kut town Alexander Dushin accused four district officials of attempting to start a wildfire after they were caught with gas canisters.

The four officials have gone missing and investigators are seeking to unravel the murky case.

In Tuva, 100 military troops were drafted in to fight fires at the request of the head of the republic, Sholban Kara-ool.

They prevented a threat to the village of Boyarovka.

For two days, the Mi-8 AMTSH Terminator helicopter with a spillway device was used, but because of the strong smoke, it is not safe anymore, so they continue the fire fight on land.

The battle is complicated by the terrain - hills with dense forest.

In the videoconference on 27 April, Putin told regional and emergencies officials that they must be ready for emergencies on both wildfires and floods.

He told them: '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. Moreover, as we also know, the spring and summer time has come, which means that there is a significant increase in the risk of seasonal natural disasters - wildfires and floods, especially in the Far Eastern and Siberian federal districts.

'The current situation in several regions is already quite difficult.'

He said rescuers were working 'fearlessly and courageously' but criticised the slow speed of measures to strengthen fire protection in TransBaikal.

'The Governor said that the work is going slowly. In the autumn, a plan was developed, but then the procedures, including at the federal level, were delayed, and the region still has not begun the actual implementation of this plan,' he said.

'But look, there are questions of paramount importance and there are secondary ones. Everything is important, but when it comes to the consequences of emergencies, or the prevention of emergencies, this should be a priority. As a result, there are fires again, and the fire infrastructure is still underdeveloped.'

It was 'not enough just to announce the decisions. This is not enough. They should be fully implemented so that they have a tangible, real impact on people's lives.'