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Raging wildfires have swallowed up an area across Siberia bigger than Belgium, with smoke enveloping cities. Observers and activists slammed the Russian government for not responding earlier.
An area of 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres) was engulfed by forest fires in remote regions of Russia on Monday. In comparison, the total surface of the nation of Belgium is 3.07 million hectares.
With fires raging for days, immense clouds of smoke reached large population centers, including Russia's third biggest city, Novosibirsk. Authorities declared emergencies in several regions.
"The smoke is horrible," pensioner Raisa Brovkina told state television after being hospitalized in Novosibirsk.
"I am choking and dizzy," she added.
No money to put out fires
Siberia regularly faces immense wildfires, but the impact this year had been boosted by strong wind and unusually dry weather. The blazes have been allowed to spread as cash-strapped local authorities usually ignore fires in remote regions.
Read more: Russia is frozen on climate change
Talking to Siberian Times, an emergency pilot in Krasnoyarski Krai said he had spent days waiting to fly his firefighting plane, but received no order to do so.
"Every day the whole team and I are on duty. There are four aircraft," he said in an article published on Monday.
"Since the beginning of the fires, not a single specialized [plane] has been lifted into the air."
"They say it is expensive to extinguish and if part of the forest burns down — it is not scary," the unnamed pilot said.
Greenpeace steps in
Separately, the region's officials said that cost of the firefighting effort is sometimes "ten times larger than the possible damage" cause by the fire.
But the pilot slammed the calculation as "absurd."
"Of course, now, probably it will be expensive to extinguish everything that burns," he said.
"But why was there no order to fly out earlier, when the fire had just begun to spread?"
The Russian charter of Greenpeace had launched a petition to force the government to move against wildfires in Siberia, which was signed by some 245,000 by Tuesday evening.
Burning in the sun
The wildfires "have long stopped being a local problem" and have "transformed into an ecological disaster with consequences for the entire country," Greenpeace said.
Greenpeace expert Grigory Kuksin said the soot and ashes accelerate the melting of the Arctic ice and permafrost, which in turns releases even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
"It is comparable to the emissions of major cities," he told the AFP news agency. "The more fires affect the climate, the more conditions are created for new dangerous fires."
The group said almost 12 million hectares have already burned this year, destroying forests that absorb carbon dioxide.
Siberia was almost 10 degrees Celsius (18 Fahrenheit) warmer than the long-term average in June, according to World Meteorological Organization.
dj/aw (AFP, Interfax, Reuters)