GFMC: Forest Fires in the Russian Federation

Forest Fires in the Russian Federation

10 August 2010

Latest available MODIS scenes: 10 August, two scenes availabe at 13:00 hrs, 500m rsolution. Source: MODIS

Two scenes availabe at 13:00 hrs, 500m rsolution. Source: MODIS

Moscow Region

MODIS Subset for Moscow Region, 500m resolution, 10 August 2010.

Latest maps maps showing fire activities of  09 August 2010 (selection):

According to the latest satellite-derived analysis provided by the Sukachev Institute for Forest (Krasnoyarsk) the total area burned per Region by 09 August:

  • Moscow Region: 34 281 ha (note discrepancy to area burned from 8 August, GFMC is currently verifying.)

  • Vladimir Region: 74 202 ha

  • Nizhni Novgorod Region: 241 568 ha

click to enlarge (40-50 KB) click to enlarge (40-50 KB) click to enlarge (40-50 KB) click to enlarge (40-50 KB) click to enlarge (40-50 KB)

Nizhni Novgorod Region Nizhni Novgorod Region Nizhni Novgorod Region

More maps of other regions are available on request:

GFMC analysis (comment inserted ex-post on this web page on 18 August 2010): By 16 August 2010 it has been noted that a wrong algorithm for the calculation of area burned had been applied since the beginning of 2009.The corrected data for the whole fire season are published starting 18 August 2010. A 2010 summary will be published at the end of the fire season.

Fire danger map for 9 August:

Source: Sukachev Institute for Forest, Krasnoyarsk

International Assistance

Numerous countries have offered to assist Russia with managing the extreme fire and haze situation to date:

News from the media:

Russian Fires Spark Anger at Government

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sits in the cabin of a Russian firefighting aircraft Be-200 during the firefighting effort in Rayzan region some 250 km outside Moscow, 10 Aug 2010

Photo: AFP

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sits in the cabin of a Russian firefighting aircraft Be-200 during the firefighting effort in Rayzan region some 250 km outside Moscow, 10 Aug 2010

After 25,000 wildfires, some Russians are starting to place some of the fault on Kremlin policies and mismanagement.

Nestled in the woods, surrounded by towering pines, life in the blue trim cottage at Number One Forest Lane would be normally considered picturesque.  But this summer, after weeks of drought and wildfires, Olga Kubysheva says it feels like living next to a nuclear reactor.
Kubysheva, a normally patient grandmother, is part of a growing number of Russians in the countryside and the city, who increasingly blame part of the massive fire damage on government mismanagement and lack of investment.
On Tuesday, leading business newspaper Kommersant estimated that the fire will total $15 billion in economic losses, trimming one percentage point off an already feeble economic recovery.  Three public opinion polls released on Tuesday showed dropping approval ratings for Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.
Mr. Putin responded with his usual enthusiasm.  As state television cameras chronicled his exploits for the Tuesday evening news, he co-piloted an amphibious firefighting plane, taking on water from a river and dumping it on burning fires in the Ryazan Region.
“We hit it”, Mr. Putin exclaimed as his plane zoomed low over the flames.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Putin met with Moscow’s Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.  He acidly congratulated the mayor for his ‘timely’ return Sunday from a weeklong foreign vacation.  While the mayor was away, city residents struggled with choking smog and extreme heat in well-insulated apartments built to withstand extreme cold.
Angering many Muscovites late last week, the mayor’s press spokesman, Sergei Tsoi, told a news website that there was “no crisis situation in Moscow.”
In face of sagging approval ratings, Russia’s president also disciplined underlings.  On Tuesday, the head of the Moscow forestry department was fired hours after Mr. Medvedev criticized him for not coming home from his summer vacation.
But Forest Lane’s Kubysheva and other Russians say that government policies and mismanagement have made the country excessively vulnerable to this ongoing natural disaster.
Through Soviet times and modern times, Kubysheva has lived and worked in the forestry complex outside of Lukhovitsi, about 130 kilometers southeast of Moscow.  A big change came four years ago, when Russia’s new forestry law essentially privatized management of state forests.  On the ground, it meant that the company laid off forest wardens to cut costs.
With the new law, she said, the forest around her has no owner.  Two weeks ago, when the wildfires started, city and company authorities dismissed as alarmist Forest Lane residents who asked for protection.
After fires exploded across European Russia, burning 2,000 homes and killing 52 people, city officials sent out a work crew.
As she spoke chain saws whined next to her house.  But, she said, the crew was cutting only a 30-meter firebreak, one-third the size ordered nationwide last week by Prime Minister Putin.  Surrounded by 30-meter tall pines, she said she was praying for rain – and keeping her documents in her car for a quick escape.
While chains saws were cutting pine trees in the country, hammers were banging nails into pine boxes at morgues in the city on Tuesday.
The Sechenov Morgue, a Czarist-era red brick building located across the street from a Moscow city hospital, saw constant comings and goings of family groups dressed in black.
Anatoly Korenyuk, the morgue truck driver, a large man in black suspenders, fitfully tried to relax with a paperback.
The extreme heat, he said, has meant more people dying and more funerals.  As he spoke, a morgue attendant interrupted, bearing a clipboard with four new addresses.
Nearby, Marina Pirozhnivona, recounted how her 86-year-old aunt died last Saturday after experiencing breathing problems on a day when wood smoke pushed city carbon monoxide to almost seven times safe levels.
She recited a long list of relatives who have left Moscow in recent days, hoping to find cleaner air and cooler temperatures.
Weather forecasters say that Moscow’s smog may continue to recede on Wednesday.  But they forecast little heat relief in a country where 500 forest fires were burning Tuesday.
According to Roman Vilfand, director of the Hydrometcenter weather forecast service, Moscow daytime temperatures through the weekend will continue to hit 34 degrees Celsius.  He said these temperatures were more typical of the Sahara. Source:

Situation according to the information received at 06:00 Moscow time 10 August 2010

247 islands of fires appeared during the day. 239 islands of fire were put out. 557 islands of fire continue to be active on the total area of 174 035.02 ha. There are 68 big islands of fire on the area of 79 452.2 ha, including 25 islands of peat fires.
In total 26 229 islands of natural fires appeared on the territory of the Russian Federation since the beginning of the fire hazardous period 2010 on the total area of 766 068.5 ha, including 1080 peat fires on the total area of 1 611.4 ha.
165 714 people and 26 542 items of equipment (42 aircrafts), including 129 171 people and 19 341 items of equipment (25 aircrafts) EMERCOM of Russia were engaged in the fire extinguishing operation.
394 people and 52 items of equipment, including 10 aircrafts (5 planes and 5 helicopters) were engaged in the fire extinguishing operation from the foreign states.

Switzerland is helping Russia to fight the fires

Source: Government of Switzerland
There is no sign of an early end to the fires ravaging Russia. Given the continuing dry weather, a worsening of the situation is likely. Switzerland is supporting Russia in its attempts to combat the fires.
According to the weather forecasts, there is little likelihood of lower temperatures or of rain in the next few days. The wildfires are spreading. In light of this dramatic situation, the Swiss authorities offered Russia support in fighting the fire last week.
Switzerland has offered several forms of assistance to the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations (EMERCOM). In the first phase, the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit provided about 500,000 CHF for protective firefighting material. The equipment and protective clothing were immediately purchased in Switzerland and dispatched to Russia.
A four-person assessment and medical team has been working in Moscow since Tuesday morning. It is organising the delivery of the fire-fighting equipment, and together with Russian doctors is looking at ways of caring for burns victims in provincial hospitals.
The experts are also strengthening Swiss representation in Moscow. At the moment the embassy is carrying out normal operations and does not envisage closing the embassy or evacuating staff from Moscow. The Swiss community and the embassy staff are receiving regular updates about the situation.

Russia: The number and area of natural fires in Moscow Region is constantly decreasing

Source: Government of the Russian Federation
The number and area of natural fires in Moscow Region is constantly decreasing. This is what the Deputy Head EMERCOM of Russia Alexandr Chupriyan who headed the Moscow Region fire extinguishing group reported about.
“High temperature and drought result in new islands of fire. As soon as they are put out in one place they appear in the other, they need only a light spell of wind. However, due to the efforts of our firefighters and rescuers the number of fires and their area in the Moscow Region is constantly decreasing,” said the Deputy Minister.
He said that for the past day the firefighters did not let the fire spread to five settlements. “Enough equipment is used in order to fight the fires, the works are still conducted at night as well and illumination devices are used in these cases,” said Chupriyan. “There is enough people and equipment nowadays.”
However, due to smog it is impossible to use helicopters to fight fires now. “Three firefighting helicopters Ka-32 and one Mi-26 are ready to fight fires in Shaturskiy, Yegoryevskiy and Orekhovo-Zuevo Regions. As soon as the weather permits the helicopters will also be used,” reported Chupriyan.
At present, the most serious situation is in Yegoryevskiy Region, therefore, the Ministry of Defence is constructing a pipeline there from the Oka River.
At present, the firefighters have to work in very difficult conditions—in smog, fumigation and heat. The firefighters are working shifts—one shift is working 14 hours during the day, the other is working the same amount of hours during the night. The doctors of the All-Russian Emergency Medicine Center “Zaschita” are always on duty in the areas of fire.

Co-pilot Putin helps put out Russia’s wildfires
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into a firefighting plane Tuesday and dumped water on two of the hundreds of wildfires sweeping through western Russia and cloaking Moscow in a suffocating smog.

Putin has been a very visible leader in the battle against the fires, which have caused billions of dollars in damage and left thousands homeless in the past two weeks. He has demanded that soldiers help overstretched firefighting brigades and has walked through smoldering villages, consoling residents and promising them new homes by fall.

But with his once sky-high approval ratings dropping — and sociologists warning that discontent could grow as the fires and a severe drought take their toll — Putin has not let up.

He took off Tuesday in a Be-200 firefighting plane and then moved into the copilot’s seat. Television footage showed him pushing a button to unleash water on blazing forest fires about 120 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Moscow.

After hitting the button, Putin glanced toward the pilot and asked, “Was that OK?”

The response: “A direct hit!”

The stunt was classic Putin. In past years, he has copiloted a fighter jet, ridden a horse bare-chested in Siberia and descended to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-sub. Just last month he drove a Harley Davidson motorcycle to a biker rally.

All of his exploits have been widely publicized on the national television networks, which are under government control. Russia holds its next presidential election in 2012, and Putin would be eligible to run.

Damage from the fires was expected to hit $15 billion, or about 1 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product, the business newspaper Kommersant reported Tuesday. The government has yet to release any damage estimates.

The hottest summer since record-keeping began 130 years ago has cost Russia more than a third of its wheat crop and prompted the government to ban wheat exports. Putin said last week the ban would last through the end of the year, but his deputy said Tuesday the government may consider lifting the ban in October once the harvest is complete.

The government is eager to prevent a sharp increase in the price of bread, which could lead to greater public dissatisfaction. The agriculture minister, speaking Tuesday on Ekho Moskvy radio, reassured Russians that there was no reason to expect retail bread prices to rise.

The acrid smog that has engulfed Moscow for a week eased a bit Tuesday, but the concentration of pollutants remained high. Putin summoned Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who said the situation in the capital was difficult but that city health authorities were doing what was needed to help people cope with the heat and smog.

Ambulances calls have risen by nearly a quarter, Luzhkov said.

The handling of the wildfire crisis could weigh heavily on approval ratings for Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the business daily Vedomosti cited a sociologist as saying.

Vedomosti noted that three polls conducted in July showed Medvedev’s rating had dropped up to 10 percentage points since the start of the year, and Putin’s had declined by up to 6 percentage points. The paper cited Leonty Byzov, a leading sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying the wildfires could drag those figures down even further and stoke anti-government protests.

The lowest approval ratings were reported by the independent Levada polling agency, which gave Medvedev 38 percent and Putin 44 percent. The highest were 52 for Medvedev and 61 for Putin, registered by the Public Opinion Foundation. The margin of error for the polls was about plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Sergei Gordeichenko, the head of the Forestry Agency for the Moscow region, was fired on Tuesday, following criticism from the president that he had not cut short his summer vacation to tend to the crisis.

Medvedev himself was slow to interrupt his Black Sea vacation even as fires around Moscow grew worse, and, unlike Putin — who went out in jeans to meet with sobbing villagers and exhausted firefighters — mostly conferred with officials after his return.

After his firefighting flight, Putin visited another village destroyed by fire and again promised residents that they would be fully compensated.

Putin also offered reassurances to residents of Moscow that something would finally be done about the dried-up peat bogs outside the city that often burn in the summer and where fires this year have sent out thick plumes of smoke. He said 300 million rubles ($10 million) would be allocated to flood the peat bogs.

Wildfire near Russia’s Urals nuclear center extinguished
A wildfire moving dangerously close to the nuclear research center in the Russian Urals town of Snezhinsk has been extinguished, the local emergencies service said on Tuesday.

“The hotspot in the Snezhinsk forest has been extinguished,” a statement said.

The fire was sparked on Friday, quickly spreading across an area of 10 hectares. On Monday, the affected area was decreased to 5-6 hectares.

The Snezhinsk nuclear research center was established in 1955. It specializes in the technical aspects of producing and testing nuclear weapons and conducts nuclear research.

Earlier, emergency measures against the spread of wildfires were stepped up in the town of Ozersk in the Chelyabinsk region where one of Russia’s largest nuclear-waste plants, Mayak, is based.

The Mayak plant, which makes tritium and radioisotopes from decommissioned weapons and waste from nuclear reactors, is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Snezhinsk nuclear research center.

A scorching heat wave has gripped much of European Russia since mid-June, sparking wildfires and causing the worst drought in decades.

Thousands of emergency workers and military personnel have been working round the clock for almost three weeks to fight the fires in 22 Russian regions, which have so far killed more than 50 people and left over 3,500 homeless.

The NASA Terra and Aqua satellites registered 377 hotspots from wildfires across Russia on Monday, down 65 from Sunday.

The record-breaking heat wave in central Russia will continue through mid-August, meteorologists say.

As Russian Fires Rage, Forest Rangers Fume
Ivan Yevangulov sits wearily on a bench in front of the forestry workers’ headquarters in this small village in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.

Yevangulov, who is in his mid-40s, has worked for two decades as a ranger protecting these once-lush forests filled with pine and birch trees. But now, he says, he’s helpless to stop uncontrollable wildfires from destroying the forest where he’s spent his entire career.

“The fire is 2 to 4 kilometers long and the flames are reaching 35 to 40 meters high,” Yevangulov says. “Just imagine. And it spreads quickly. It’s not possible to escape on foot. It’s moving so quickly that it’s impossible to stop it. The fire engines that were here had to turn around and leave.”

This region has seen some of the worst damage since wildfires first broke out across western Russia last month, fanned by an unprecedented heat wave and bone-dry earth. But the oblast is hardly alone. More than 500 forest and peat fires are continuing to burn across 170,000 hectares of Russia, with new fires igniting faster than the old ones can be put out.

In Moscow, scorching temperatures and heavy smog caused by the fires are being blamed for nearly doubling the capital’s mortality rate, with health officials saying as many as 700 people are now dying each day. Beyond the city, massive fires have killed more than 50 people, razed scores of homes, and destroyed thousands of trees.

It has also brought public anger over government negligence to the boiling point. As frustration grows over the uncontrolled spread of the fires, many critics say state cuts in fire-fighting resources and new laws on forestry management are to blame — and that the Kremlin elite should account for their role in the disaster.

‘Unprotected’ Forest

“It became very windy and the whole situation got out of control — I mean, completely out of control,” Yevangulov says, describing a deadly “wall of fire” that blazed toward Rizadeyevo before veering off course and sparing the village the destruction witnessed in other parts of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.

In the past, such fires were easier to contain. There once used to be as many as 70,000 rangers like Yevangulov patrolling and protecting assigned tracts of the country’s 775 million hectares of forest. As employees of the Soviet-era State Forestry Service, the rangers — together with 200,000 additional forestry workers — were considered the first and best line of defense against forest fires.

But a radical revamp of the service has left Russia’s forests virtually unprotected. Sharp spending cuts in the 1990s began to drain the forestry service of employees and equipment. And a 2007 Forestry Code further decimated the ranks by moving responsibility for forest supervision away from the state and onto local authorities or individual renters in or around forested areas — including wood-processing companies and developers with no vested interest in protecting the forests.

Aleksei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with Greenpeace Russia, says the new code effectively eliminated in a single blow the entire forest-protection system built up in the Soviet era — cutting back rangers by 75 percent and replacing them with smaller, less effective, ranks of office workers.

“There are no more forest rangers, in the old sense of the word — people who were right there, on the spot, to protect the forest,” Yaroshenko says. “These people basically no longer exist. There are other forest-management office employees now who occasionally do something in the forest, but for the most part they fill out forms and do bureaucratic tasks. So the forest is unprotected — and, of course, this is how it’s been for the past 3 1/2 years.”

Too Little, Too Late

There are currently an estimated 162,000 people involved in efforts to contain the fires. Very few, however, are traditional rangers or state-funded firefighters. Instead, they are a motley assortment of army soldiers, volunteer firemen — some from as far away as Belarus, Bulgaria, and France — and even local villagers, some armed only with shovels. Even in areas where trained firefighters are on hand, a crippling shortage of equipment has made traditional fire-fighting techniques difficult, if not impossible.

Such setbacks have focused increased scrutiny on the Forest Code. Signed into law by then-President Vladimir Putin, the code was supported by real-estate developers and the timber lobby, which was eager to lay claim to one of the country’s last great extractable resources.

The legislation sparked an uproar among environmentalists and regional officials, who said the move would expose Russia’s pristine forests to unchecked development and sharply raise the chance of wildfires.

Andrei Gorelov, a former ranger in the Vyksunsky district of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, says the forestry workers that remain are more focused on timber production than on preventing and fighting forest fires.

“There are fewer and fewer forest rangers. When I worked as a ranger here we had about 30 people working with us — rangers, other forestry workers, assistants,” Gorelov says. “And when there was a forest fire, we mobilized and we were focused on containing the fire, not on timber production. And now there is simply nobody to do that.”

Gorelov adds that even in seasons when there were a lot of fires, forestry workers were able to respond quickly to contain the blazes. “There was a time when there were seven or eight new fires a day. We always mobilized rapidly, to come and locate the fire’s epicenter quickly. We dug ditches around the fire so it wouldn’t spread and we would douse it with water. And that was all you needed,” he says.

Crisis Management

With the death toll mounting and homes and forest land continuing to burn, the government is facing a monumental challenge to its preferred image of implacable control. (The recent announcement that Russia will ban grain exports in the face of a disastrous, drought-afflicted harvest, is likely to send food prices soaring and weaken the Kremlin’s standing even further.)

Putin, now prime minister, has become a frequent sight on Russian television in recent weeks, promising state restitution for lost homes and berating local bureaucrats for failing to fight back the fires. But writing in “The Moscow Times,” political commentator Yulia Latynina said that “in reality, there is really only one bureaucrat who is responsible for this tragedy — Putin himself. After all, it was Putin who signed the Forest Code in 2007.”

The Russian leadership has also come under criticism for failing to prepare for summer-season wildfires which, in recent years of rising temperatures, have become a fairly routine event. Analyst Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation think tank says many are wondering why the Kremlin was caught flat-footed by a summertime threat that has plagued the country for years.

“It’s no secret that peat fires and forest fires have been the traditional companions of hot weather in Russia for many decades already,” Volk says. “There was nothing unexpected about this. So it naturally raises the question of why, at the start of the season — when they predicted a very hot summer — they didn’t take appropriate measures for preparing for and notifying people about the dangerous situation regarding these fires.”

Will Anger Last?

Public dissatisfaction is mounting over the sluggish response to the fires, with bloggers calling for federal officials to resign and Putin himself facing direct taunts from residents angered by the destruction of their homes.

A video, posted last week on YouTube, showed an uncomfortable prime minister surrounded by a voluble crowd of distraught, shouting residents from Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village in the Vyksunsky district that was completely destroyed by the fires

State television, however, is countering such rare glimpses of unrest with an onslaught of coverage of the government’s response to the fires. In a country where most people get their information from television, Yaroshenko says, the lasting memory of the 2010 inferno may be one of a government with the crisis well in hand.

“Certainly a lot of people right now are beginning to understand that everything they’re seeing on television is a Potemkin village — something done for show. But what the consequences will be once the fires are forgotten…” Yaroshenko says. “I don’t rule out that people will forget about the whole thing and just say how good we have it here.”

Forest Fire Rages in Akhaltsikhe District

Hundreds of firefighters, emergency workers and volunteers continue efforts to contain forest fire in Akhaltsikhe district, which erupted on August 4.

The fire broke out close to the village of Atskuri, when efforts were still underway to extinguish forest fire in neighboring district of Borjomi, about 150 kilometers west from Tbilisi.

“Situation is not easy… But the situation is under control and population is not under threat,” Goga Khachidze, minister for environment protection, told Rustavi 2 TV via phone from Atskuri.

He said mountain landscape, wind and high temperature made it difficult to fight the fire. He also said that it was difficult to predict, but at this point there was no need to request assistance from Turkey, as Georgia did for number of times in the past to fight the forest fire.

The Ministry for Environment Protection said in a statement that forest fire smoke blanketed three nearby villages. It also said that total of 25 hectares of forest were destroyed by fires in Borjomi and Akhaltsikhe districts.

In a separate location, fire has reportedly destroyed about 50 cottages in the village of Kumisi, about 15 kilometers south from Tbilisi. Mainly holiday houses are located in the village, which were not inhabited when fire broke late on August 8. No casualties were reported. It was reported that bad road leading to the village of Kumisi delayed firefighters’ arrival.

In general high temperature was blamed for all the recent wildfires in Georgia; but as the Environment Protection Minister said recently “carelessness” could also be not ruled out.

Kazakhstan faces harsh situation on forest steppe fire prevention
Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations of Kazakhstan Valery Petrov pointed out on Monday that Kazakhstan’s forest steppe fire prevention situation is very harsh this year.

Petrov said at a government work conference held in Kazakhstan’ s capital Astana that in the first 7 months this year, there occurred 363 forest steppe fires throughout Kazakhstan, in which 120 occurred in natural reserve areas. Fire burned area amounted to four thousand hectares, and direct economic loss was more than 35 million tenge (about 237,600 U.S. dollar).

Petrov noted that in the first 7 months this year the number of forest steppe fires dropped by 10 percent over the same period last year, but the burned area increased by 19 percent. Fire caused a total of 200 cattle died, 2 people injured.

The official stressed that according to the statistical data in recent years, in August and September Kazakhstan’s temperature is relatively high, and rainfall is relatively low, this period is the time when forest steppe is easy to happen. He demanded relevant departments in all areas strengthen fire prevention, avoid people and property loss.

Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Masimov ordered all ministries to establish a national forest steppe fire prevention command on the government work conference held on the same day. The command will be led by the Ministry of Emergency Situations and be responsible for fire prevention and fire fighting and rescue work throughout Kazakhstan.

It is learned that, at present Kazakhstan has 1,200 firemen and 224 fire engines and special equipment to cope with forest steppe fire especially. In addition, the Ministry of Emergency Situations is also planning to buy 3 BE-200 multifunctional amphibious firefighting aircraft from Russia.

Living From Fire to Fire

Traditionally, August is considered the most cursed month in Russia, and this month’s fires have kept this infamous tradition alive. It is only fitting that Moscow — which President Dmitry Medvedev hopes to turn into a modernized, global financial center — would be choking in toxic fumes, scaring off visitors (along with many foreign investors) and forcing some embassies to evacuate personnel.

This summer’s wildfires differ from the ones in previous years in at least two ways. First, they are much more widespread and more visible — especially in Moscow. Second, the fires have burned for several weeks now with no end in sight.

Forest fires are usually classified as natural disasters. This is true in the sense that fires have occurred as the result of an abnormally intense heat wave. But nature is not solely to blame for the extensive damage the blazes have caused or for the loss of dozens of human lives.

Although most forest fires are natural disasters, the extent of damage is largely dependent on the government’s ability to fight fires and other calamities. This is where Russia has a big problem, despite the heroic efforts of many of its firefighters. The problem is that heroic self-sacrifice is the price individuals end up having to pay for the inactivity and mistakes of others, just as it was during Soviet times.

This summer’s fires clearly demonstrated that the country as a whole was woefully unprepared for such a calamity. When villages burn in a particular region, that is the responsibility of the governor — and those in Moscow who appointed him. But who is responsible for fires that rage throughout the country?

Media coverage by state-controlled television is designed to inspire confidence among viewers that Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are in control of the situation. The goal is to depict both leaders as being vigilant, particularly when they fire officials for their negligence.

There were, however, stylistic difference between the two: Putin addressed victims at disaster sites trying to show that the state is taking care of them, while Medvedev addressed high-

ranking officials from his ornate office.

The problem, however, is that the usual form of government control with Putin and Medvedev calling all the shots does not work in a crisis. Firing officials and providing aid to fire victims might help cope with the immediate emergency, but these measures do not improve the underlying, systemic problem. The longer the fires continue, the more people will start asking themselves whether all of Medvedev’s “tough responses” were just an attempt to increase their popularity ratings.

What lessons can Russia learn from this summer’s fires and the government’s reactions to them? First, the country needs to improve techniques for putting out fires. Second, it needs to re-examine the Forest Code and whether the number of firefighters is sufficient for a country that has the world’s largest forest reserves. Third and most important, it needs to address the problem of the country’s overly centralized and highly ineffective government institutions.

Most of the public discussion has been devoted to the need for modernizing firefighting equipment and pre-treating peat bogs so that they do not burn in such huge numbers. Much less has been said about the fact that the state failed to fulfill its function as guardian and protector of the country’s woodlands with the new Forest Code that it pushed through three years ago despite the objections of many experts and representatives of heavily forested regions.

To make matters worse, regional governments have insufficient autonomy, responsibility and resources to respond adequately when fires break out without first getting approval from Moscow at every stage. Municipal administrations have even fewer opportunities to act independently, and this is particularly damaging because most of the fires are being fought at the local level. As long as the country’s management structure remains so top-heavy and “vertical,” there will be no improvement in the country’s ability to manage crises.

Putin understands that his vertical power structure is highly ineffective. If it were effective, he would not have ordered to have video cameras set up to monitor the government’s program to rebuild houses that were burned down by forest fires.

To thoroughly understand where the lapses were in fire prevention and firefighting and to learn lessons from the gross mistakes that were made, public hearings and an independent parliamentary investigation need to be carried out.

Unfortunately, Russia has shown so many times throughout its history that it is incapable of learning from its mistakes, and this summer’s fires will unlikely be an exception to the rule. If all goes according to Russian tradition, the government will attempt to sweep its negligence under the carpet, and it will forget as soon as possible about the latest fires — until the next one occurs.

Death Rate Doubles In Moscow’s Heat Crisis
Scorching heat and acrid smoke have nearly doubled death rates in Moscow, a city official said on Monday, as smog from raging forest and peat fires shrouded Russia’s capital for a third week.

Firefighters battled wildfires covering 1,740 square km (672 sq miles) — an area bigger than Greater London — in what the chief state weather forecaster said he believed to be Russia’s worst heat wave for a millennium.

“The average death rate in the city during normal times is between 360 and 380 people per day. Today, we are around 700,” Andrei Seltsovsky, Moscow’s health department chief, told a city government meeting.

Russia’s worst drought in decades has spooked world grain markets, driving wheat prices up at the fastest rate in more than 30 years and raising the specter of a food crisis.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned on Monday that the harvest could be as low as 60 million tons, lower than many analysts had expected.

Kremlin critics have blamed Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, for what they call a sluggish and ineffective government response to the fires, but opinion polls have so far shown no decline in his popularity.


Moscow’s health chief Seltsovsky broke weeks of official silence on the wider health effects of the smoke and heat, saying that ambulance dispatches were up by about a quarter to 10,000 a day.

Heat stroke was the main cause of the recent increase in deaths and problems linked to heart disease, bronchial asthma and strokes had risen.

“This is no secret,” Seltsovsky said. “Everyone thinks we’re making secrets out of it. It’s 40 degrees (Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit) on the street. Abroad, people drown like flies and no one asks questions.”

Russian officials had announced that 52 people had been killed by fires that have ravaged forests and fields but until Monday neither federal nor Moscow authorities had announced data on deaths from the heat and pollution.

That has given rise to suspicion of a Soviet-style cover-up in the face of criticism of the government’s handling of the wildfire crisis.

Health Minister Tatyana Golikova said at a news conference that she had no information about the rise in the death rate in Moscow, but morgues and hospitals were overcrowded.

A sign in one Moscow crematorium said it was fully booked and taking no new orders.

“Today we have 80 bodies. We store them anywhere we can because the refrigerators are full,” an attendant at Hospital No. 62’s morgue, designed to hold up to 35 corpses, told Reuters.


Putin announced last week a grain export ban from August 15 to December 31, sending prices higher and hurting shares of brewers such as Carlsberg and Heineken.

Putin said on Monday that the ban on grain exports could be extended beyond the end of the year. “If someone is waiting for December 31, he is waiting in vain. A decision may be taken only after the harvesting campaign results are clear,” he told a government meeting.

“The latest crop forecast by the Agriculture Ministry is 65 million tons, but it may be 60 million tons,” he said.

Putin added that the situation was aggravated by the fact that some important regions would not be able to start the winter-sowing campaign.

The weather outlook is little changed for this week, with a slight drop in temperatures forecast for later in the week.

SovEcon, a leading agricultural analyst, said on Monday that Russia’s wheat crop might be about one third smaller than last year’s, dropping to 43 million tons from 61.7 million tons in 2009.

In neighboring Ukraine, the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter in the 2009/10 season, analysts and officials cut crop and export forecasts.

Russia’s main sugar lobby warned on Monday that the drought may hamper this year’s sugar beet output, reducing it from the earlier expected 4 million tons to 3.2-3.5 million tons.

The downgraded beet forecast is not expected to change Russia’s import needs as it has large domestic reserves. Almost all sugar produced in Russia is consumed domestically.

Russia has begun to feel the wider economic effects of the drought and heatwave, which have prompted banks and businesses to reduce staffing and slowed activity in the service sector.

Alfa Bank, a Moscow investment bank, said it would not publish a daily research bulletin on Monday or Tuesday.

“Owing to severe weather in Moscow, there is only a limited presence at the bank,” an Alfa official said in an e-mail.

For more details on fire in the Russian Federation:

Bibliography on fire in ecosystems of boreal Eurasia:
One of the results of the first international fire science conference in the Russian Federation (1993) was the publication of a monograph on fire in boreal Eurasia, including some selected contributions on boreal North America. The literature cited in the monograph contains numerous publications which in many cases are not easily accessible. To facilitate literature search the bibliographical sources are provided by topic (chapter).
Goldammer, J.G. and V.V.Furyaev. 1996. Fire in Ecosystems of Boreal Eurasia. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 390 p.

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