The wildfire fighters battling extreme heat in Yakutia

5 August 2021

For the locals of Sakha Republic, a northeastern region of Siberia also known as Yakutia, uncontrollable and destructive wildfires have now become an expected part of annual calendars. Just two weeks ago, the region was hit by an unprecedented blaze that is being dubbed “airpocalypse”. As a kid growing up in Nyurba, civil servant and photographer Ivan Nikiforov says two decades ago he remembers his summer break from school being free of smoke.

Having to endure temperatures as low as -50°C and -60°C in winter, it would be an understatement to say that summer can’t come soon enough for the inhabitants of one of the coldest regions of Russia. But the onslaught of the climate crisis now makes this the fourth consecutive year Russia is battling catastrophic wildfires. As Nikiforov laments: “Summers here are already devastatingly short, now people are forced to suffocate in smoke.”

In July 2021, Nikiforov was on a business trip in the Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk when flames engulfed the surrounding forest. “The village filled up with smoke. There were power outages — there was no electricity and no way of getting a phone signal or internet. It was difficult to deal with the situation without being able to communicate with others. That was the first time I’d really felt that the population was in danger.” Some people were able to use a portable power supply and soon electricity had returned. Upon returning home to Yakutsk, Nikiforov decided to join the efforts to contain the blazes and signed up to volunteer. “I couldn’t just go back to my cosy office while my homeland was burning and pretend that it wasn’t going to affect me and the people close to me. It felt like standing on the sidelines of disaster,” he says.

Once it gets going, it becomes impossible for firefighters to stop and control the spreading fire. One of the most widely used methods for extinguishing forest fires is to create what is known as a mineralised strip or a “firebreak” — a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that acts as a barrier to slow or stop its progress, particularly near livestock farms, villages, agricultural land, and railroads. Soil is also used to suppress the fire. All of this is gruelling work, says Nikiforov: “We were told there were safety precautions, but otherwise we had no preparation and were taught everything on the go. You have to work quickly to dig the firebreaks, and it’s not easy to work with a shovel in the heat and smoke.”

There were 11 volunteers in his unit who were supervised by aviation security officers. He decided to photograph the team battling the soaring flames, documenting how they worked and what they did in their down time. In one photo, a volunteer sharpens his shovel to make it easier to dig. In another shot, we see a young man pushing a burning tree out of the way of the firebreak. The yellow haze that looks like a photo filter is actually the wildfire smoke hanging in the air. “As it was my first experience fighting fires, I wanted to photograph these moments for myself,” Nikiforov explains. Once he uploaded them onto social media, he saw the value of sharing the volunteer efforts with the public. “The comments were all praise and support, but the most important thing was that it inspired others to sign up as volunteers.”

As fires continue to sweep Yakutia, more is needed to contain and prevent their spread: increased funding for the emergency aviation services, more aircrafts in fire-hazardous areas, and increased flights to patrol the area at the start of summer. “I am not a professional and do not specialise in wildfire prevention, but what I can tell you is that we need to work ahead of the curve,” says Nikiforov. “Cutting costs on our forests is more expensive — and dangerous — in the long run.”

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