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Into the Woods

TOL Special Report: Russia’s horrendous 2010 fires have sparked a new corps of volunteer forest guardians.

by Anna Baskakova 4 June 2012

This is the eighth in a series of articles on the state of the environment in Russia.


MOCOW | For the past 18 months, volunteers have been laying fire-breaks in the Oksky State Biosphere Reserve in Russia’s Ryazan region, south of Moscow. More than 100 people took part in this work in 2011, and now the Oksky team is making ready for summer.


“We might also start working in other valuable natural areas,” said Aliona Romanova, who leads the volunteer project. “And we recently got an unusual request to cut down dry shrubs around an old people’s home, 140 kilometers (87.5 miles) from Moscow. Of course, we’ll do it.”

Volunteer Ludmila Aleksandrova extinguishes a fire in Meschera National Park, east of Moscow, in July 2011.


In many parts of western Russia, similar preparations are taking place for the summer of 2012 – a direct result of the summer of 2010, when record heat coupled with cutbacks in state support for forest protection sparked wildfires that burned acres of trees, consumed peat fields, and blanketed Moscow with thick, choking smoke. Seventy-one people died, by official estimates. But from the ashes arose a new “forest society,” for whom the environmental and human disaster became a lasting call to service.


As numerous accounts noted at the time, government agencies issued no health or safety warnings as the fires sprouted in woodlands and peat bogs, and they seemed unable to contain the rapidly spreading blazes. What happened next was as unprecedented as the 100-degree temperatures: people who felt abandoned by the authorities took it upon themselves to tackle the problem, en masse.


Using social networks, blogging site LiveJournal, and an interactive online resource called The Help Map, volunteers from all walks of life organized camps, contained and put out fires, transported cargo, and distributed aid to victims. They liaised with local officials, the forestry service, and the federal Emergency Ministry, which after initial skepticism began seeking out the voluntary groups for help.


“I was struck by the way people pulled together to confront the wildfire threat. More striking still was that despite the initial absence of a single coordinating center, such a center quickly appeared on the Internet,” the poet and playwright Yuliy Kim said in a spoken-word compact disc he recorded as a benefit for Zhuravlinaia Rodina (Motherland of the Cranes), a nature reserve and crane sanctuary in the northern Taldomsky District of the Moscow region that has become a locus of the volunteer firefighting movement.

Driada Liya, who in her other life has an act in which she dances with snakes, plants pine trees in a fire-devastated forest in spring 2011.


“I was amazed by the initiative, coordination of effort, unity, and enthusiasm of these people,” Kim said. “I felt proud that nobody sat on his ass waiting for help from the government.”


In autumn 2010, as autumn rains came and finished the work of putting out the fires, many of the movement's participants remained on the job. This volunteer corps – still operating largely outside official structures – turned its attention to reforestation and preventing future wildfires, launching new initiatives and buttressing longstanding efforts.


Numerous groups have sprung up or expanded their work. The Gebler Environmental Society plants cedars in the southern Altai region. The green group Era in Ryazan clears forests of burnt trees and garbage and puts out fires. The Taldom Club, a volunteer fire and rescue service, works on reforestation and ecological management, gives lectures in schools on fire safety and environmental issues, and patrols the peat bogs in Zhuravlinaia Rodina – not just for signs of fire threat but to protect the birds that nest there from poachers.


Along with established organizations, a network of firefighter camps composed of the former “emergency volunteers” carries on recovery work from 2010. Many of the newcomers are urbanites who previously thought of the forests outside Moscow and other big cities only as places for rest and relaxation, the care of which was the government’s problem. When they did join the volunteer effort, they had little idea of what they were in for.


Andrei Bulanov, now a permanent volunteer attached to a camp east of Moscow, said that when a girlfriend asked him to join the firefighting effort two summers ago, “we thought we’d go for a day.”


But when they arrived at the site and saw the scale of the fires, he said, “We knew at once that it was serious and it would have been unforgivable to abandon the situation. We spent a whole week at the place and afterward worked in shifts,” Bulanov said.


By then, he and his new colleagues “were already planning the forests’ re-creation.” Last year his camp planted pine trees over an area of 6.5 hectares (16 acres), and “we’ll carry on with the planting [this] spring.”


A small volunteer firefighting community had been active in Russia for a decade prior to the wildfires, but it attracted little public or media attention. Volunteer activity in the country centered largely around hospitals and orphanages. But the disaster fueled not just greater awareness of ecological dangers facing the forests, but recognition that one didn’t have to be a specialist or expert to attack them. Some volunteers recall it in almost romantic terms.

A volunteer identified only as Michail threads a fire hose through a dense patch of fallen trees in Meschera National Park in July 2011.


“I seem to have witnessed Russian civil society being born,” said Romanova, the Oksky reserve volunteer. “In the firefighting camps I found my soulmates. After work on the first night we were making plans about other environmental issues we would deal with after we put the fires out.”


That work has continued despite a relationship between the volunteer brigades and the government that is ambivalent at best.


In the aftermath of the wildfires, some local authorities awarded medals and commendations to volunteers, and Moscow spoke of fire-service reforms that would include a significant volunteer component. Sergey Shoygu, then-head of the Emergency Ministry, or EMERCOM (and now governor of the Moscow region), announced plans to build a volunteer firefighting force of 700,000 – a more than fivefold increase from current estimates – aimed particularly at serving the tens of thousands of remote settlements not covered by professional fire departments.


Rather than offering organizational help and training to volunteer brigades, however, the government adopted new fire-service regulations in May 2011 that imposed onerous obligations on volunteer groups without providing additional resources. The law mandated that volunteer brigades be officially registered and employ paid support staff, including an accountant and a firetruck driver.


“After the wildfires society changed its attitude on issues related to wildfires and the volunteer movement. The authorities became apprehensive about the volunteers as a force capable of self-organization and had to establish a form of public control,” said Grigory Kuksin, head of the firefighting program for Greenpeace Russia.


There are some areas of cooperation on the local level – for example, Anna Andreeva, chairwoman of the Taldom Club, notes that her group works closely with the district’s professional fire service. But volunteers borne of the 2010 crisis have largely ignored the new regulations, as well as the EMERCOM summons to join registered brigades. The ministry has provided uniforms and equipment for the new, official units, composed largely of students, veterans, and militarized pro-government groups, but not for the volunteer organizations that grew out of the 2010 disaster.


Given its makeup – mostly young, urban, and professional – and skepticism of official structures, there is inevitably some overlap between the volunteer movement and Russia’s anti-government protest movement. Many volunteers are politically active as individuals, taking part in demonstrations and contributing to political blogs, and there is widespread recognition in the movement that political failures – imperfect environmental legislation, winking at rule-breakers – contribute to the problems they are trying to solve.


But the volunteer groups have no formal political aspect or stated agenda. Problem-solving, not protest, remains their focus, and, as Greenpeace’s Kuksin noted, the movement’s larger impact is less political than societal.


“The existence of the volunteer firefighting movement is an important part of the formation of civil society” in Russia, he said, “and it is an important step forward in people’s self-awareness."
Story and photos by Anna Baskakova, a journalist, photographer, and volunteer firefighter. She lives in Moscow.
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