Fire After Fire
27 May 2003
Editor’s note: Ezhenedelny Zhurnal is among the best political and societal magazines in Russia. The weekly was established by the highly praised and regarded editorial team that formerly ran Itogi, the leading Russian political weekly throughout the 1990s.
What does the forest smell like? In spring, it smells of melting snow and budding trees. In summer, it smells of sap. In the fall, it smells of fallen leaves and mushrooms … and almost always of smoke. The fire season starts in Russia’s woods in February when the snow disappears from the southern slopes of the mountains (especially in the Caucasus) and it ends at the end of November or the beginning of December, when the snow finally falls on the mountains of the Primorsky krai in the Russian Far East. But within that endless extravaganza of fire, there are some moments when things come to a head, and one such moment is in late spring. Every year, immediately after the snow melts, smoke fills the Russian skies just like in wartime and TV correspondents start using military terminology.
THE ‘ABORIGINES’ OF TIERRA DEL FUEGO
Unlike other seasonal disasters, this one is completely manmade: Only one in a thousand forest fires is started without any human participation (for example, by lightning strikes). The most common causes are unextinguished campfires, discarded cigarette butts, or matches. And in just under half of all cases, the fires are started intentionally.
True, it’s very rare for a forest to be the target of such arson attacks. (Although this can also be the case: Fires are very convenient for covering up illegal logging). Usually everything begins with the burning of old, dry grass and weeds left over from the previous year [a tradition in the Russian countryside so that livestock can start eating the new grass earlier--TOL] not far from the forest. The people who do this, if you ever catch them, come up with various reasons for their actions: “so the new grass will grow better” (although they have no livestock), “so it won’t burn when I’m not here and take my house with it,” etc. In the Khasansky region of the Primorsky krai (famous for suffering from fires every year), fire inspectors were astonished that children had been taught to set dry grass on fire in village schools--supposedly as a means of combating tickborne encephalitis. And, of course, children don’t really need any special training to start fires, just give them matches and wait until the grass dries …
The St. Petersburg-based journalist Viktor Tereshken, who served in the Leningrad region’s firefighting brigades in the 1980s, tells a grotesque story. The firefighters received a call that all 48 buildings in a village had burned down in a fire. There was nothing left to save, the destruction simply needed to be reported.
“What caused the fire?”
“They burned dry grass …”
“And what is the name of the village?”
“Novye Pogoreltsy [New Victims-of-a-Fire].”
The firefighters were taken aback.
“Where did that name come from?”
“They built the village around 15 years ago after a fire.”
“What started that fire?”
“The burning of dry grass …”
“And what was the place called before?”
“Just Pogoreltsy [Victims-of-a-Fire].”
“It burned down once before, right after the war. Probably also from burning grass …”
In the course of some three or four decades, the residents of that unlucky village lost the roofs over their heads, their possessions, and risked their lives three times, but still did not learn any lesson from such dangerous entertainment.
This evidently unreasonable behavior (which is not, however, a strictly Russian peculiarity--just remember the horrible forest fires in Indonesia, two “black Christmases” in a row in “civilized” Australia, and similar incidents) has deep cultural roots. Mass pyromania has been inherited from ancient cultivators of the land, who continuously struggled to free their homesteads from a continuously encroaching ocean of forests. The real crime is that the situation has been reversed over the last 100 years: Today forests exist only as isolated islands surrounded by inhabited areas, by a manmade landscape. These forests and their inhabitants have almost no chance of being saved.
Almost all of Myravevsky Park--the only non-state forest reserve in Russia, a kind of research range for sustainable forestry and agricultural techniques--burned to the ground at the end of April. The park burned together with the nests of the endangered Daursky crane. The cause of the fire was standard: burning grass on a neighboring property. The park had struggled with this every year, but this year the situation proved too much: The dry weather and strong winds that settled over the south of Eastern Siberia made the fire impossible to contain. As the Emergency Situations Ministry delicately put it, current data “allows for a prognosis for 2003 of forest fire risks above the average yearly level.” What the “average yearly level” is can be judged from last year’s statistics, when 43,400 fires ravaged 2 million hectares of land, two-thirds of which was forest. Last year was mediocre, with an average number of fires and area damaged by forest fires. Only in Central Russia were the fires unusually strong, but their impact on this “holiday of fire” was minimal.
“Understand,” the press officer of the Emergency Situations Ministry hammered out his point to me, “that we take over when a fire either has already reached a settlement or when a huge area is burning and the smoke reaches a city. We cannot handle every little fire.”
On the one hand, the spokesman was completely right. The ministry’s air fleet is short on mobile strength. The water dispenser attached to an Mi-8 helicopter releases 5 tons of water, the one attached to an Mi-26, 15 tons. This type of helicopter can refill at the nearest large source of water without returning to base or even touching the ground. According to the crew of the Mi-8 that was working in tandem with an Mi-26 that crashed recently, the latter managed to refill five or six times from the nearest river, the Ingoda, in an hour and a half. The ministry has about 50 of each type of helicopter and also possesses Ilyushin-76 airplanes that can carry up to 42 tons of water (now that Minister Sergey Shoibu has grounded all the helicopters until the reason for the recent crash can be ascertained, the Il-76s are the only airborne firefighting equipment available). But airplanes can only obtain water at airports and their accuracy is nothing compared to that of the helicopters.
Currently, there are 560 source fires in Russia. It is clear that helicopters and airplanes can only be used to complete the largest of tasks--fighting the largest fires, saving settlements, and so on.
However, the Emergency Situations Ministry has more than just an air fleet. Recently, regular firefighting services were also included in its mandate. The ministry’s proud position is reflected in the orders sent down to the Moscow region’s firefighting department: “Don’t go after grass fires.” Evidently, those at the “emergency situations” ministry wait until a situation becomes an emergency …
This is not due to laziness. The resources of the firefighters--people, equipment, fuel, etc.--are limited. They can be increased, but that takes money. Money, of course, will be found, but not before the fire and smoke has reached settlements and regional centers, which happened last year in Moscow and has already happened this year in Irkutsk. Identifying the source of a fire and putting it out before it spreads would be inexpensive and effective, but for some reason there is no money for such activities. It is reckoned that preventive measures and liquidating smaller fires should be handled by the Forestry Service, which is part of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
This may be impossible in the middle of Siberia where the tracts of forest are huge, but it is completely realistic in Central Russia. The way the Forestry Service is organized, however, does not leave the forest rangers enough time and strength to carry out these responsibilities. With monthly salaries reaching only a few hundred rubles [100 rubles is a little more than $3], they are forced earn money through commercial logging enterprises, a practice euphemistically called “forest treatment” [cutting and selling wood under the pretense of caring for the forest]. Fighting small source fires is not a task that can be handled in the time not devoted to their chief duties.
The forest is endangered by this conflict of interests … as are those people who end up in the path of the fires, either through circumstance or professional responsibility.
by Boris Zhukov. Translated by Maria Antonenko.