Published online 12 August 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.404

News: Briefing

Russia counts environmental cost of wildfires

Without better forest management, country can expect further uncontrolled fires in the future.

Wildfires are hitting urban areas of Russia.SERGEI CHIRIKOV/EPA/Photoshot

As fires sweep across Russia during its hottest and driest summer on record, the country is facing a multitude of public-health and environmental disasters — including the risk of radioactive particles being released from contaminated land around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Here, Nature explores the scale of the devastation, and the dangers the fires still pose.

How bad is the situation?

More than 300,000 hectares of forest, vegetation and peat land have burned since the fires began in June. Some of the worst-affected areas are the Moscow region in the west of Russia, and the Nizhni Novgorod region southwest of Moscow, according to figures from the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC), part of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, based at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

According to ITAR TASS, the Russian state media, the ministry of health and social development says the death toll from the fires has risen to 53, with 806 people having requested medical attention.

Is this unprecedented?

No. Wildfires often occur in Russia. The GFMC says that more than 15 million hectares of forest and vegetative land have burned in fires in the Russian Federation already this year. Most are sparked by lightning in areas forested with fire-tolerant trees, which can withstand the worst of a fire, such as pine (Pinus). Such fires are often beneficial to the functioning of the ecosystem, and forests usually regrow quickly after them.

So why the fuss?

The current fires are burning in more urban areas, and in places populated by trees that are not fire tolerant, such as birch (Betula). They are also reaching gardens and vegetable patches, says Johann Goldammer, a fire ecologist and director of the GFMC. "Many poor people will lose their harvest, which they need to survive the winter," he says. Long-term health effects from inhaling the smoke are another concern, he adds. Carbon monoxide pollution has risen to 10 times above the maximum permitted levels, he says, in large part due to burning organic matter in dried-out peat bogs. The forests will grow back naturally, says Goldammer, but it will take a long time, particularly for the slower-growing trees such as spruce (Picea).

The fires have also reached the Bryansk region, east of Chernobyl, the site of the nuclear power plant that exploded in 1986. This has raised fears that radioactive particles could be released into the atmosphere. Goldammer told Nature that he received unconfirmed reports on 11 August that 200 hectares in the region are alight.

Is there a radiation risk?

Not really. Jim Smith, who researches the fate of radioactivity in the environment at the University of Portsmouth, UK, says he is "not concerned" that the fires could lead to an increase in dangerous radiation. Most of the radioactive particles are in the soil rather than in the flammable leaf litter and trees, he explains. The fires that are currently burning are outside the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around Chernobyl, where the land is unlikely to be contaminated with α-particle-emitting isotopes — potentially the most damaging if inhaled.

There have already been around 100 fires in the exclusion zone since the Chernobyl accident, and studies have shown that this has resulted in an increase in radiation of less than 1%, says Smith. "Only a small amount of radiation gets re-suspended, so I'm not concerned about damage from inhalation," he told Nature.

In a statement on 11 August, the Russian government said that radiation in the Bryansk region and its neighbouring areas is "normal". But others are more worried. "I wouldn't underestimate the exposure risk, as we know little about the health effects of a carbon monoxide and low-dose radiation combination", said Vladimir Chouprov, an energy campaigner for Greenpeace Russia, in a statement.

Media reports say that fires encroaching on the nuclear research centre in the town of Snezhinsk, in the Urals region, have now been extinguished. Fire-fighting measures were stepped up in the town of Ozersk in the Chelyabinsk region where one of Russia's largest nuclear-waste plants, Mayak, is based.

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How did the fires start?

Goldammer says the fires were started by "negligent behaviour" on the part of members of the public, who lit barbecues and fireworks in forested areas. Russia has experienced its hottest summer in 130 years, with temperatures of 40 °C drying out vegetation and peat bogs, and making them a fire hazard.

Could the fires have been prevented?

Possibly. Legislation passed in January 2007 decentralized the management of the forests to local regions. Goldammer says that the authorities there have not taken adequate responsibility for managing and protecting the forests and peat lands, and that "investments in fire management have not been made".

Will climate change make fire more likely?

Yes. If the climate in Russia continues to change as expected, the areas affected by the current fires will continue to be dry, making fires more likely in the future. That could prevent the forests from growing back and the area will turn to grassland — and so be even more vulnerable to wildfires, says Goldammer. 

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