Singapore isn't the only city in the world to recently deal with gritty, irritating clouds of forest-fire smoke. Over in Yekaterinburg, an urban area of 1,350,000 residents in western Russia, the skies are dimmed with massive amounts of ashen gas emanating from thousands of acres of flame-licked plant life.
Noxious smoke befouls the atmosphere over Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets, two autonomous regions known for oil production, reindeer husbandry, and the tiniest, cutest dead baby mammoth you'll ever see. The layer of smoke spreads beyond Yekaterinburg to caress Perm, Chelyabinsk, and other cities north of Kazakhstan, as shown in this image that NASA's Aqua satellite snapped on Monday. Winds molded the plume so that in one place it curled into an immense gyre (larger):
Squint and you'll notice red pinpricks hidden in the swirling smoke. These are where the American satellite detected warm spots that are likely wildfires, which by now number at more than 170 throughout Russia. Here's another one of Aqua's views of the flame-broiled country, this time on July 25 in the same general location:
The fire is having an easy time carbonizing the land because the vegetation is dried out, a consequence of a nasty heat wave that saw people wearing bikinis in Siberia. Sweltering summers have been the setting for several recent fire outbreaks in Russia – the one in 2010 that killed more than 50 people (or 56,000, if you factor in heat-related deaths), for example, and the even-worse flame-plague in 2012 that sent smoke as far as Vancouver. Many of the blazes were triggered by lighting, although humans were also to blame with their poorly managed agricultural burns and unattended campfires.
A fire that sprouts up in the Russian hinterlands stands a good chance of running rampant before the authorities get around to battling it. That's because bureaucracy has made firefighting a difficult prospect, as RT reports:
The ecologists believe the reasons for the catastrophe lie in the country’s inability to fight wildfires due to calamitous changes in legislation. Forest management has become gravely dilapidated since 2000, when the Federal Forestry Service was liquidated.
A new and highly ineffective Forestry Code introduced in 2006 appeared to be the last straw. It abolished centralized state forest control, distributing its functions among regional authorities. The latter, as a rule, are unable – or unwilling – to allocate enough finance to forestry protection and monitoring.
From 2006 to 2010, the number of forestry employees shrank by half. Now it is unclear who bears responsibility for prevention and battling wildfires.
This disorganization has consequences for Russians living far beyond the wildfires. With firefighters now spending months dealing with crackling forests and smoldering bogs, the smoke in the air can get so heavy it affects the quality of life in cities as distant as Moscow. That was clear in August 2010 when invading smoke turned Red Square into a murky mess and reportedly doubled death rates in the city:
(Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters)