Russia: A Study Tour (IFFN No. 6)

The Russian Fire Establishment Impressions from a Study Tour

(IFFN No. 6 – January 1992, p. 3-5)

From 15 July to 10 August 1991 Dr. Johann G. Goldammer and Dr. Stephen J. Pyne toured the forest fire establishment of the Russian Federation as the guests of Avialesookhrana, the aerial forest protection service. The itinerary included visits to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Sverdlovsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Yakutsk, and Khabarovsk, and assorted field trips to more remote satellite bases. We visited the major institutions involved in fire research and management, witnessed field demonstrations of firefighting technologies, and sought to assist in what we hope will be the integration of Russian fire management into the global fire community.

The former Soviet Union estimated its forested lands at 1 billion hectares, of which 750 million ha are forested to a greater or lesser degree. This amounts to 25-30 per cent of the world’s forests. Pine dominates the western taiga, and larch the eastern. The structure of the forest clearly reflects its fire history, although fire in turn integrates many other factors. Precise historical statistics are not available because, until glasnost, figures were altered to meet political goals, but the fire load is large, and the difficulties of protecting lands on this scale are of course enormous.

Russian forestry evolved out of German models, and thus included a strong program of fire protection. Today fire protection relies on two, roughly coordinated programs, one is dependent on ground technologies; the other, on aerial means. Ground firefighting is the responsibility of “forest enterprises”, that is, of the state-owned timber industries. Aerial firefighting operates through a separate institution, Avialesookhrana, which works under contract with the local forest industries. Avialesookhrana also provides protection, under state contract, to non-commercial lands such as reindeer pasture.

Although aerial reconnaissance dates to the early 1930s, the major thrust for aerial firefighting through air tankers and smokejumpers began during World War II and spread into Siberia during the mid-1950s. By 1991 Avialesookhrana oversaw 22 aerial fire centres and 8000 aerial firefighters, trained equally in smokejumping and helirappelling. Jumpers fly in AN-2 aircraft, six men to a plane; they patrol along prescribed routes according to fire danger calculations, and if a fire is spotted, they jump immediately. Rappellers follow a similar scenario, using MI-8 helicopters. For some time the service has been converting to helicopters, which are more versatile and cost-effective; the trend is limited largely by the availability of the aircraft (all planes and helicopters are under contract from Aeroflot). On the ground, firefighters rely on explosive cord to build fire lines, from which they burn out and then employ backpack pumps to protect the line and to mop up. Special pumps, helibuckets, and collapsible water tanks have been developed to assist these operations.

A research establishment complements these field operations. Within a network of forest institutes, three have special responsibility for applied science with regard to fire protection – the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Forestry Research Institute, the Krasnoyarsk Forest Research Institute, and the Far East Forest Research Institute (Khabarovsk). Each serves both regional and national needs. The St. Petersburg institute, for example, specializes in aircraft and pumps; the Krasnoyarsk institute in line-construction equipment; and the Far East institute in fire danger rating. In addition, the Academy of Sciences sponsors research into fire ecology at numerous regional centres and supports a dedicated Laboratory of Forest Fire Research within the Sukachev Institute at Krasnoyarsk.

All in all the Russians have a remarkable comprehensive infrastructure for fire. But even before the August revolution, rapid change was occurring. In July 1991 responsibility for the aerial fire centres transferred to the individual republics. The subsequent abolition of most all-union ministries (including Goskomles, which oversaw forestry), the push for a market economy and selective privatization of land, the emergence of environmental advocacy groups, uncertainties over financing, a dramatic rise in burned area since the mid 1980s – all challenge the Russian fire establishment. The future is impossible to forecast, but since the Russian Federation embraces 95 per cent of the taiga, it is likely that the infrastructure will remain intact, although downsized. Still, the requirements for replanning and modernizing fire management are awesome. It is a story that will likely have global consequences.

Among our recommendations were to include Russian among the languages in a revised edition of the FAO Wildland Fire Management Terminology; to host a reciprocal visit to the USA in 1992; to assist with the translation into English and subsequent publication of major Russian fire research literature; to integrate Russian fire managers into international seminars, publications, and study tours; and to prepare a major symposium on Fire in Ecosystems of Northern Eurasia, to be staged in Russia. In the perestroika of the Russian fire establishment, there is much that Western fire managers can contribute – and much that we can learn.

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Fig.1 Smokejumping has a long tradition in the USSR: A group of smoke jumpers boarding an IL-14 for a jumping exercise in Winter 1973.

From: Stephen J. Pyne

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