In Siberia forests, climate change stokes ‘zombie fires’
Equipped with a shovel, Grigory Kuksin lifts and turns smouldering earth in the marshy clearing of a sprawling Siberian forest.
Together with a small cohort of volunteer firefighters, he is battling a winter-resistant, underground blaze, a growing problem in Russia that he calls a “climate bomb”.
“These are underground fires — zombie fires,” said Kuksin, the 40-year-old head of Greenpeace’s wildfire unit in Russia.
The vast bog topped with nettle and hemp surrounded by a thick pine forest is part of the Suzunsky nature reserve, located a two-and-a-half-hour ride south of Russia’s third-largest city Novosibirsk.
Its soft surface is peat — a fuel formed by the slow decomposition of organic matter in humid environments — which has been smouldering for around five years, Kuksin estimated.
Lying dormant one metre (three feet) beneath the earth’s surface, the fire has survived biting Siberian winters because of low groundwater levels — a result of regular droughts.
“But peat never catches fire on its own. Man is always responsible,” Kuksin said, suggesting that a poorly stubbed out cigarette is enough to start a fire that will take years to extinguish.
After winter — when summer temperatures soar — the fires can return from the dead, igniting dry grass on the surface and spreading over large areas.
“That’s what happened last summer,” said 60-year-old Sergei Akopov, one of the volunteer firefighters tackling the blaze, saying he battled a wildfire that sparked from the bog last year.
“We saw the foxes and hares running from the flames,” said the trained lawyer who has repeatedly wrestled with bog fires over the past few years.