As wildfires in Russia spread to areas hit by nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, Greenpeace Russia continues to provide Russian citizens – and the international media – with up-to-date information on the real extent of the forest fires that are savaging the country, including detailed maps and satellite images of the fires’ actual spread and their locations.

For many Russians, the ‘Forest Forum’, a website run by Greenpeace Russia that provides information using collected satellite data, has been the only reliable source of information on what has become one of the country’s most severe environmental disasters. Fires have swept through Western Russia for several weeks, leaving 54 people dead so far and huge swathes of land burnt.

Greenpeace Russia also deploys a team of 6 staff and 14 volunteers tracking fires in the field. The team is currently monitoring the situation between Moscow and the Rjazan region, south-east of Moscow, one of the hottest and most affected areas.

While official Russian government data has often portrayed the situation as ‘under control’ in recent weeks, satellite images taken and publicly provided by Greenpeace continue to tell a different story. As a result, Russian media are now frequently using both official and Greenpeace data when reporting on the fires, which have already prompted 20 regions of Russia to declare a state of emergency. 

The first-hand information being provided by Greenpeace Russia highlights several inconvenient truths that are still only being addressed and communicated partly, or not at all, by the authorities in Russia, both in terms of the real reasons behind the fires, and potential threats arising from them:

Radioactively contaminated areas are affected; radioactivity could spread

The fires have reached areas where there is radioactive contamination. Greenpeace Russia has been warning about this threat at a time when the authorities were still playing it down. On August 10, Greenpeace Russia published a map that shows that radioactively contaminated areas suffer from more than 20 fires. At least three blazes hit forests in the Bryansk region, where large swaths of land were contaminated when a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive clouds over much of the western Soviet Union and northern Europe.

The Greenpeace map was generated using data acquired on August 9 from The International Atomic Energy Agency and the international fire monitoring system Fire Information for Resource Management, based on MODIS satellite images. The Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that, if fires spread in this area, they “may re-release nuclear contamination from the Chernobyl disaster into the air and a new contaminated area will appear”.

On 12 August, most of the fires in the highly contaminated areas had been extinguished.

The response of the Russian government continues to be inadequate

Greenpeace Russia is critical of the Russian authorities’ handling of the crisis, in particular the change in legislation implemented in 2007 by then-president Vladimir Putin that abolished the centralized woodland-fire control system that used to give alerts when fires broke out and helped to fight them at an early stage. Before the introduction of this new Forest Code, 70,000 forest guards regularly patrolled manageable forest territories, spotting and fighting fires at an early stage. Now, these tasks are split between regional authorities and private leaseholders; what used to be the work of experienced foresters is in the hands of a much smaller number of bureaucrats.

A couple of years ago, Greenpeace Russia and local Brianskaya MP Mrs Komogortseva appealed to the Russian Government to provide 300 million rubles to equip local foresters and fire fighters in the radioactively contaminated area. Only 48 million rubles (1.2 million Euros) was provided, only enough for 37 cars and machines. The foresters and fire fighters lack good clothes and equipment to fight the radioactively contaminated fires. Now 300 thousand hectares of radioactive forests is under control of just 14 foresters.

In addition to that, the financial resources provided by the Russian authorities to fight the fires remain inadequate. As Greenpeace Russia pointed out on August 10, a mere 2.2  billion rubles (around 56 million Euro) had been allocated for fire fighting in 2010 – an insignificant sum, especially when compared to what countries such as the United States spend. Greenpeace estimates that Russia needs at least 30 billion rubles (around 764 million Euro) to successfully combat the current fires nationwide.

Climate change is a major contributor to the current situation

The Russian authorities have, until now, resisted ambitious action on climate change out of fears it would dampen economic growth – and have therefore often downplayed the situation. Faced with the most severe heatwave the country has seen, however, denial over climate change is becoming increasingly hard to hold up. Cloaked in a haze of smoke from wildfires, the Russian capital Moscow has suffered its hottest day on record, with temperatures reaching 39C (102F). Events like this are in line with what climate scientists are predicting. Greenpeace Russia will continue to call for serious action on climate change in the hope of preventing disastrous forest fires in the future.