Russian wildfires 'caused by human activity'

Birch trees in Siberian forest

Birch trees in Siberian forest
Analysis of satellite imagery by Greenpeace has revealed the human activity linked to vast majority of catastrophic Siberian forest fires.

Prescribed burnings either caused fires, or did not fulfil their intended function, which is to prevent the burning of dry forests.

Wildfires that ravaged millions of hectares of forest in Russia in 2018 were likely to have been caused by humans, according to analysis carried out by mapping experts at Greenpeace.

More than 15 million hectares in Russia were burnt due to wildfires in 2018 - an area almost twice the size of the Republic of Ireland, according to official data.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists at Greenpeace used remote sensing data to analyse four regions of Siberia totalling more than 3.9 million square kilometres that have been the most badly hit by wildfires.

They found that the “overwhelming majority” of the fires started close to places where people travel, work or live, or to sites where “prescribed burnings” took place.


This is where small fires are started deliberately to reduce vegetation in order to prevent any wildfires getting out of control. The practice – used worldwide – is controversial as some argue that it damages biodiversity while not preventing dangerous wildfires.

In one area studied, Amur Oblast, around a quarter of the fires identified – with a burned area of 2.8 million hectares – were spatially linked to areas where the forestry service had conducted prescribed burnings.

The analysts said that this indicated that the prescribed burnings “either caused fires, or did not fulfil their intended function, which is to prevent the burning of dry forests”.

While Greenpeace acknowledged that evidence of human activity close to the starting point of a wildfire does not conclusively prove it was started by humans, the campaign group argues that it does indicate a high probability that it was – particularly in very sparsely-populated regions.

To read more about the analysis, see this interactive map by Greenpeace.

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Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.

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