April usually brings a sharp increase in fire activity throughout Central Asia, as farmers begin to prep their fields for the coming season. This year is no exception.
Thousands of hectares were burning when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of fires in a rural area north of Omsk, a city in south central Russia near the Kazakhstan border. Fields and grasslands appear brown; red outlines mark the locations of actively burning fires. Numerous smoke plumes, as well as a patchwork of darker burns scars, are also visible. Aqua acquired the image at 2:05 p.m. local time (08:05 Universal Time) on April 24, 2012.
Many of the fires appear to be burning on farmland and were likely started by grain farmers. The area around Omsk is one of the most productive agricultural regions in Russia; some of the main crops include wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Growers often burn debris from the previous year’s crop before replanting in order to clear the land and fertilize the soil.
Officially, both Russia and Kazakhstan prohibit farmers from burning their fields, but each spring satellites detect large numbers of agricultural fires nonetheless. Scientists can use satellites to distinguish between agricultural and wildfires because in addition to occurring on croplands, agricultural fires tend not to be as bright or long-lasting.
In one study that used MODIS measurements, scientists tallied the global distribution of agriculture fires and found that between 18 and 29 percent of the fires in central Asia were agricultural in origin. Researchers also found that Russia was responsible for an estimated 31 to 36 percent of the world’s agricultural fires—more than any other country.
What begins as a controlled agricultural fire, however, can easily morph into a raging wildfire in this part of the world. In Omsk, forests cover about 30 percent of the landscape and fires can easily spread. Many cultivated fields are adjacent to abandoned fields and wild grasslands, remnants of large farming cooperatives that collapsed with the USSR. (Forests are densest in the upper left of the image, and some of the fires in these areas have likely become uncontrolled forest fires).
About 200 wildfires break out each day in Russia, the director of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, Sergei Didenko, recently told the ITAR-TASS news agency. “The human factor continues to play the negative role. Ninety-nine percent of all fires are started by negligence, prank, or carelessness, ” he said. In an unusual case, officials recently fined a man 581 million rubles—$19.6 million—for discarding a cigarette and starting a fire that burned 2,000 hectares in 2009. He reportedly saw the fire burning, yet did nothing to stop it.