Around 150 firefighters, with the support of aircraft and drones, have been tackling a blaze in Poland’s largest national park, the Biebrza National Park in the north-east of the country, since Sunday.
The fire is believed to have been caused by farmers illegally burning grass. Its spread has been exacerbated by dry weather conditions, with Poland this year on track for one of its worst droughts in over a century.
The park is renowned for its peat bogs, marshes and fenlands, which provide a home to various species of plants, rare wetland birds, and mammals such as elk and beavers.
The current blaze has affected one of the most valuable areas, at the intersection of the Augustów, Moniecki and Sokólski districts, threatening villages, as well as damaging habitats of park wildlife.
Efforts have been particularly focused on preventing the fires reaching the Czerwone Bagno and Grzędy reserve, according to the park’s official Facebook page. This has become a habitat for elk and deer, as well as other wildlife.
However, the fire is already reported to have had a catastrophic effect on habitats in the forest, with reports that animals have been burning alive whilst trying to protect their nests, reports website Gazeta.pl.
Posting updates and pictures of the fire on social media, one guide from the park, Agnieszka Zach, said it was “what the destruction of one of the most valuable natural areas in Europe or on earth looks like.”
The fire is the first major outbreak in the park for 17 years, although 15 smaller fires have also been reported there since January, according to website Noizz, a news service.
The park’s director, Andrzej Grygoruk, says that the cause of the fire is likely to have been traditional grass burning by farmers – a prohibited activity, punishable with fines up 5,000 zloty or 10 years imprisonment.
“This is obvious. It is not possible now for fire to ignite itself – this is not the middle of summer, there is no heat or storms,” Grygoruk told Noizz. “I don’t know what to call it. Stupidity? Irresponsibility? Case? Carelessness?”
The fire is also said to be spreading so quickly due to weather conditions. Poland is set for one of its worst droughts in over a hundred years, with climate change and poor water management combining to create low soil moisture across much of the country. With little rain forecast in the near future, firefighters at Biebrza face no respite as the fire spreads.
Earlier in the week, it was reported that the fire in the park was under control. But it later emerged, reports Noizz, that this announcement had been premature, with dry ground and wind sparking new outbreaks.
“On Tuesday morning I received information that it had burned down about 1,400 hectares,” said Grygoruk. “In the morning I was told that the fire was contained, but only for a moment. It started again and…we estimate that another 300 hectares are burning.”
As the fire worsened, the National Park sent out an appeal on social media for extra monetary support to help tackle the blaze. In a post yesterday, the park said the funds they had secured in the event of fire had run out on Monday, as the fire grew ten times the size of usual outbreaks.
State Forests, the public body that manages Poland’s forests, has contributed to the firefighting effort by using planes for water drops. But park authorities say that they need thousands more zloty of funds, with each drop costing 10,000 zloty, reports Polsat News.
The firefighters’ work has also been hindered by the park’s remote landscape. The lack of paved roads means they have to travel two kilometres on foot to reach the location of the fires.
Main image credit: Grzegorz Dabrowski/Agencja Gazeta
Juliette Bretan is a freelance journalist covering Polish and Eastern European current affairs and culture. Her work has featured on the BBC World Service, and in CityMetric, The Independent, Ozy, New Eastern Europe and Culture.pl.