Firefighters battle to contain worst fires for over 100 years as they ravage largest national park in Poland
Wild fires are devastating Poland’s largest national park and causing a natural catastrophe for wildlife.
Firefighters and volunteers are fighting night and day to save an area the size of 2,000 football pitches in the Biebrza National Park in north-east Poland.
The fires are being exacerbated by an unprecedented drought in Poland, which the meteorological office is saying is worse than any in the last 100 years.
The blazes, which started on Sunday evening, are ravaging some of the best preserved marsh land and peat bogs in Europe.
The unique area is a paradise for many rare species of wetland birds, and is also home to the largest number of elk in the country, as well as, lynx, deer, wild boar and wolves.
Although fires often occur in the park each spring, particularly due to farmers burning grass, the scale of the current fires is catastrophic.
Artur Wiatr from the park’s administration said: “The likely cause of the fire was human carelessness [...] a small spark has caused great havoc.”
According to park authorities, the fires are burning in an area of high natural value in the Augustów, Moniecki and Sokólski districts in the Podlasie province.
Since the fires erupted on Sunday evening, dozens of fire engines and hundreds of firefighters have been tackling the blazes.
A major obstacle to firefighters’ efforts is the Biebrza National Park itself as most places cannot be reached by vehicles.
Firefighting planes belonging to the State Forest Authority have been drafted in, which have dropped water several times on the area covered by the fire.
“Each plane takes 1,800 litres of water. Nearly 6,500 litres of water have been dropped on the fire,” said Jarosław Krawczyk, spokesperson for State Forests in Białystok.
Drones are also being used to identify outbreaks of fire.
The fires are causing additional difficulties for firefighters because they are burning in peatlands that are every dry.
Artur Wiatr said: “In many places the peat bogs are in clumps, so when the fire penetrates into these clumps it is stored there and when a gust of wind appears, the fire ignites again.”
He added that because of this, fires can flare up in various places at any moment.
Photos and videos shared on social media show dramatic scenes. Thick, black clouds of smoke can be seen billowing over expanses of open peat bog, while photos taken from the nearby town Goniądz show an orange glow in the distance, revealing the scale of the fires.
The fires are not threatening people’s homes; however, the effect on animals has been catastrophic.
Agnieszka Zach, a park guide, said on Facebook, “With every hectare, new-born elk, deer and wild boar are dying. Eggs and chicks are dying.
“Animals are dying in defence of their nests and young.”
The Facebook page Moja Biebrza wrote that firefighters reported seeing a white-tailed eagle burn to death as it protected its nest of young with its wings.
The special fund that the park keeps in reserve to tackle fires ran out yesterday and it is appealing for donations to pay for more equipment and fire-fighting flights over the affected area.
"We cried recently over Australia... Today, Poland's largest national park is burning, one of the best preserved peat bogs in Europe,” park director Andrzej Grygoruk said in his appeal.
The area affected by the fires is unique and is one of the best-preserved peat bog sites in Europe.
The site was formed over thousands of years layer by layer and is a repository of everything that has happened on it since the last ice age.
For centuries, similar sites have been drained and converted into pastures and farmland. In the last century as much as 86 percent of all Polish peat bogs were drained, which is why the Biebrza river valley is so valuable.
More than 280 bird species have been recorded here, including many rare and otherwise disappearing birds such as the great snipe, black grouse and aquatic warbler and the areas rare plants are admired by scientists from all over Europe.
More wild fire breakouts are expected this year as the snowless winter and lack of early spring rain has created a severe drought in Poland.
The meteorological office say that all types of drought are now occurring in Poland: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural and hydrogeological.
According to the experts, the situation has not been this bad in at least a hundred years.