The news about the excess death rate in the Russian capital due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is often followed by a note: ‘this is the highest number since 2010’. That summer, a heatwave caused peat fires in the neighbouring region to grow into an unprecedented emergency. For a whole month, the city of 12 million was blanketed in thick smog containing deadly carbon monoxide and suspended particles. The fires led to a 36% spike in deaths in July-August 2010. This figure is comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic toll.
Ten years later, firefighters and volunteers are doing their best to prevent another catastrophe.
A recipe for disaster
Like oil and gas, peat is a natural storage of carbons once valued for its energy properties. While burning, it releases more CO2 than wood or grass. This makes peat fires more dangerous for the climate than their forest counterparts.
According to Irina Kamennova, Project Coordinator of Wetlands International Russia, peatlands account for 3% of land on Earth. In addition, peatlands contain 500 gigatonnes of carbon — two times more than all the forests on our planet.
“When peat burns, all the stored carbon accumulated in it over the millennia gets thrown back into the atmosphere. Peat fires stand out by the duration of burning and the amount of CO2 released. Overall, CO2 emissions from the drained peatlands total more than 3 gigatonnes a year,” Irina Kamennova says.
Andrey Sirin, Director of the Forest Science Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences adds that smouldering swamps are only part of the problem. Even if peat doesn’t catch fire, without water, it starts to decay again, slowly storing carbon into the air.
“CO2 release from peat fires or decay can account for 15% of all anthropogenic emissions, including industry, energy production and transport,” Andrey Sirin points out.
Die-hard peat fires
Peat fires, which can smoulder for months, are a particularly acute problem for Russia. The Soviets had been draining swamps extensively before abandoning peat in favour of oil and gas in the 1980s. Recently, the situation has been exacerbated by the warmer climate.
Greenpeace Russia firefighter Grigory Kuksin indicates that in the past ten years underground fires increasingly survive through Russian winters because a thick snow cover is no longer guaranteed. This complicates the work of emergency services, turning the process into an endless cat-and-mouse game between people and the blaze.
“It is wrong to assume that forests and peatlands ignite because of heatwaves. In most cases, it’s people’s recklessness that causes fires, while hot and dry weather merely exacerbates them,” Grigory Kuksin explains.
According to him, peatlands usually catch fire in spring, when Russians rush to forests for picnics and hunt, leaving bonfires or burning grass for fun. Even if a fire’s starting point is far from peatlands, blazes may eventually reach them through woods and fields.
Peat fires are also harder to extinguish than forest ones. It is not enough to pour water onto the burning site. This material contains a lot of resin which prevents liquids from entering deeper layers of earth. After a few days, water evaporates and the fire starts all over again.
Grigory Kuksin highlights that, in order to put a peat fire out, you need to pump around 1m3 of water into 1m2 of earth and then meticulously mix it, like dough. A little secret he learned from older firefighters: put a hand deep into the mass and check its temperature. If it’s still warm, brace yourself for yet more water pouring and mixing.
“It is crucially important to locate and extinguish all the burning sites in spring when they are small enough so we can put them out with local water resources. If the peat fire grows to 1km2, it becomes almost invincible,” Grigory warns.
“I would lie if I said that now we have fewer fires than in 2010. But today we are better prepared to put them out — we’ve created a net of canals and artificial reservoirs for quick access to water, increased the number of firefighting brigades and started to use satellite data to monitor flames,” says Andrey Keller.
Keller is the former mayor of Shatura township, an epicentre of the 2010 peat fires. He supervised the works to increase Shatura’s emergency preparedness before quitting in 2019.
However, experts say that the best way to prevent peat fires is to bring the water back, restoring natural ecosystems once ruined by the Soviet Union.
“The simplest option is to block human-built drainage channels,” Irina Kamennova explains. “This prevents natural waters from leaking and sets conditions for ecosystems’ self-restoring,” she continues.
Grigory Kuksin adds that firefighters and volunteers also use natural materials to construct dams on peatlands.
“A restored bog does not necessarily house the same species of plants and aminals that the original one. But at least it does not burn and starts to store carbon again, working with us against climate change,” he adds.
Peat fires in 2010 served as a stark reminder that investing in emergency prevention is always cheaper than fighting with a fully-fledged disaster. In the end, nature will reward those who care for it and punish those who don’t.