08/2021 National Geographic

Siberia’s wildfires submerge it in smoke


As massive wildfires engulfed Siberia last summer, burning over six million hectares of forested lands in the Yakutia region, plumes of smoke travelled as far as the North Pole. A dispatch from a world engulfed in smoke. With words by Madeleine Stone.

Fuelled by hot and dry weather, the fires in Siberia grew to become bigger than all the other forest fires in the world combined. Smoke from the fires engulfed far-flung settlements, blotting out the sun, making the air difficult to breathe, and turning the skies an apocalyptic reddish hue. Yakutia’s residents, many of them farmers, stepped out to fight the unprecedented fires themselves, using makeshift kit and basic tools, tying handkerchiefs over their faces to protect against the smoke. At the same time, they raced to handle the year’s harvest, collecting what they could before wildfires consumed their crops.

As fires approached ever closer, villagers faced the decision of whether to stay, or leave homes behind and go. Albina Kovrova, 31, hung up the washing on one day. The next, with the fire raging just a few hundred metres away, she took her two children and left. Others stayed. The village’s cattle herder waited all day for her twenty cows and calves to come home. By nightfall, only four had returned, injured, covered in burns and soot. The others became confused in the smoke and didn’t find their way home. The family may struggle to feed those that did — the haystacks they’d harvested for the winter had all burnt too.