At least 10 people are dead and hundreds of homes and buildings are destroyed after wildfires ripped through eastern Siberia this weekend. High winds, officials said, both helped cause the fires and spread them out of control, after downed power lines short-circuited and sparked the flames, which were then blown across the area.
The winds reached speeds of up to 131 feet (40 meters) per second, which prevented aircraft from assisting the 300 firefighters and 90 vehicles on the ground, the region’s emergency service said. In addition to the 10 deaths, 11 other people were taken to hospitals for injuries sustained in the fires, Reuters reported.
Krasnoyarsk regional governor Alexandre Uss said he’d given the order to cut off electricity in the region except for certain crucial services to prevent more fires.
“We have called for help from neighbouring territories, but are aware that will, in the best case, not arrive for some hours,” he told reporters.
Roman Vilfand, a meteorologist at the Hydrometeorological Research Centre of the Russian Federation, told a local news service that dry conditions in the region also helped the fires—which are uncommon in May—to spread. “There hasn’t been rain for a long time, there were fires, and then strong wind,” he said.
These fires are just the latest in what is already a very active fire season: At the end of April, Russian authorities said that they had already extinguished more than 600 fires in the eastern part of the country, which includes Siberia. Smoke from those fires traveled over to the U.S., causing hazy skies over parts of the West Coast.
Unfortunately, wildfires in Siberia are becoming more and more common as climate change continues to transform the region. The winter of 2019-2020 was Russia’s hottest on record, while in 2020, a spring-summer heatwave sent temperatures soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) in June. Scientists later said that this heatwave, which helped spark out-of-control wildfires, was made at least 600 times more likely thanks to climate change. Last year, fires started up again during warm temperatures in May and continued throughout the summer, while authorities also found “zombie fires” from the year before still burning under the snow.
These types of fires not only can be devastating to local communities but can also release greenhouse gases, as the permafrost in the region is a huge source of both methane and carbon dioxide. The 2020 fires above and below the Arctic Circle released a record-breaking amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Spain. Meanwhile, temperatures got so hot that year that gaping craters started opening up in the earth, thanks to methane in the ground exploding.
The war in Ukraine could also hamper firefighting efforts during what might be another hot summer. The Russian military usually pitches in to help local firefighting operations, and some experts say that local villages could be in danger without the extra assistance.