For weeks the world’s coldest city, Yakutsk in Siberia, has been at the centre of an inferno.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of its surroundings are on fire as the heart of the Eurasian continent bakes like never quite before.

The smoke descends on Yakutsk in waves. Another one is feared for this weekend. The city, bluntly, is facing a repeated public health disaster.

“There is nothing to breathe,” said a citizen cited by local news outlet SakhaDay said last month. “We used to wait out the long winter evenings for the warm, sunny, bright summers. Now I am waiting for winter. I’d rather have frost than smog.” For context, this January a record low -58% was recorded in the region, the nominally autonomous Republic of Sakha or Yakutia.

Yakutsk is on of the world’s climate emergency frontlines. And the city’s mayor, watching her citizens choke, has had enough with lack of action from Vladimir Putin’s government eight time zones west in the Kremlin.

“Our great power demonstrates its military might at parades every year but it can’t handle fires - or does it not want to?” Sardana Avksentieva raged on her Instagram account. “The smog is a risk to our lives and health and a direct violation of our constitutional rights.”

She had called for a federal HQ for firefighting in her region. Instead, she said, she got visits from two deputy ministers. “What is their function?” she asked. “Are they supermen?”

This sounds like a local Russian row. It is not; it is global.

Sakha’s fires - like others in California or Australia or Canada, or like the recent floods in Germany or Afghanistan - have individually made international news bulletins, specially after smoke from the burning crossed the Bering Straits to Alaska.

Scientists rarely want to attribute one event, one fire or one flood, to global heating. But they are noticing patterns, clear ones: the wildernesses of the northern hemisphere, the woods, the tundra heathers, the great carbon sinks of peatlands, are all at a greater risk of fire.

'Lower scale'

This affects Russia, America and Canada. And it affects Scotland, albeit on a vastly lower scale.

Last week investigative journalists from istories, an independent Russian outlet, cited new figures from the local Greenpeace branch in their country. They look at the big picture, and it was very big indeed.

The campaign group calculated that fires - including traditional but controversial small ones started by Russian farmers to clear grass - had burned a total area of 25.75 million hectares in 2020. For context that is slightly more than the total area of the United Kingdom. The burn “scar” in Russia was last year bigger than Britain. So far this year - with the wildfire season far from over - it is the size of Iceland.

Russia is the biggest country in the world, by area at least. Yakutia alone is vast, covering an area nearly as big as India, and unimaginably empty.

And it has a long history of forest or tundra fires, a natural part of its ecosystem. But not like this.

There are similar stories elsewhere. The United States National Interagency Fire Center recorded more than 10m acres of burn scar in 2020; that is around 4m hectares, or, put more simply, an area the size of Switzerland. Thing are looking worse this year, by last month the equivalent of Jamaica had burned, more than in the same period of last year.

Canadian authorities for 2020 reported a quieter year with their burn scar well below the 10-year average. But so far this year they are facing a different story, especially after the Pacific province of British Columbia sweltered under record high temperatures, just under 50C. So in 2021 1.25m hectares have burned, a little less than the area of Northern Ireland. “It’s quite daunting,” John McKearney, the fire chief of Whistler, BC, told Canada’s Global News.

Scottish 'scar'

Scotland’s wildfire burn scar is much smaller . It was ‘just’ 11,700 hectares in 2019, according to figures published by Nature Scot on an analysis of major blazes. Half of that area was a single peat fire in Caithness.

Bruce Farquharson is a Scottish Fire and Rescue Area commander in Aberdeen and an expert in wild fires, who is watching what happens elsewhere with concern.

“We are all experiencing the same issues just in different ways,” he said. “The impact of climate change is being felt in the northern hemisphere fairly similarly. It is just a question of scale.”

Scotland does not have the same fire season as Russia, or Canada or America. Our “fuel", Farquharson explains, is “lovely and green” in the summer. Scotland tends to burn in the late winter and early spring when frost and wind has dried out vegetation. And our heather and grass and peat combusts differently to, say, Canadian jack pines. But the trends are similar. “There are different fuel types but the underlying context is exactly the same,” he said. “It is the warning of he air and the removal of moisture in the air.”

SFRS is not just watching what is happening overseas. It is actively learning from it. The service has worked with Catalans and Danes on wild fires. So for Scotland has not had a spontaneous fire of the kind which occurs in the giant land masses of North America or Eurasia.

Manmade blazes

Our blazes tend to be man made - even if that is just broken glass left by picknickers catching the sunm. But Farquharson is not ruling anything out.

“In other parts of the world, they see fires started by weather,” he said. We have never seen that in Scotland yet. But climate change is doing all sorts of funny things so they fact we have not seen it yet does not mean we won’t see it at some point.”

Scotland is essentially Canada or Russia or America in miniature but without, so far, the huge temperature swings. The challenges, especially the distances, are similar but so much smaller.

“There is nowhere we cannot put a fire out but there are significant challenges in getting to fires,’ Farquharson said. “We work very closely with partners, especially gamekeepers, foresters and farmers who can help us transport people are resources and have their own knowledge and skills to ear.

“It is a very different contest to the likes of Canada or Russia where the geography involved is so immense that it is a completely different undertaking to get hundreds of miles from roads to get to fires, whereas we are just miles from a road.” A system-wide approach to wildfires is one of the big take-aways of global responses to wildfires. It is not just a job for firefighters.

Last week istories highlighted Russia’s problems mobilising manpower for what is one of the planet’s biggest eco-battles: saving the forests and peat bogs of Siberia.

Back in 2015 the Putin government designated swathes of Russia to be what it called, euphemistically, the ‘control zone’. These were areas, including much of Yakutia, were authorities were not expected to put out fires, unless they approached settlements. In total, that is 45% of all the country’s forests. Wildfires are winning.