Editor’snote: EzhenedelnyZhurnal is among the best political and societal magazines in Russia. The weeklywas established by the highly praised and regarded editorial team that formerlyran Itogi, the leading Russian political weekly throughout the 1990s.
Whatdoes the forest smell like? In spring, it smells of melting snow and buddingtrees. In summer, it smells of sap. In the fall, it smells of fallen leaves andmushrooms . and almost always of smoke. The fire season starts in Russia’s woodsin 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 beginningof December, when the snow finally falls on the mountains of the Primorsky kraiin the Russian Far East. But within that endless extravaganza of fire, there aresome 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 justlike in wartime and TV correspondents start using military terminology.
THE’ABORIGINES’ OF TIERRA DEL FUEGO
Unlikeother seasonal disasters, this one is completely manmade: Only one in a thousandforest fires is started without any human participation (for example, bylightning strikes). The most common causes are unextinguished campfires,discarded cigarette butts, or matches. And in just under half of all cases, thefires are started intentionally.
True,it’s very rare for a forest to be the target of such arson attacks. (Althoughthis can also be the case: Fires are very convenient for covering up illegallogging). Usually everything begins with the burning of old, dry grass and weedsleft over from the previous year [a tradition in the Russian countryside so thatlivestock 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 fortheir actions: “so the new grass will grow better” (although they haveno livestock), “so it won’t burn when I’m not here and take my house withit,” etc. In the Khasansky region of the Primorsky krai (famous forsuffering from fires every year), fire inspectors were astonished that childrenhad been taught to set dry grass on fire in village schools–supposedly as ameans of combating tickborne encephalitis. And, of course, children don’t reallyneed any special training to start fires, just give them matches and wait untilthe grass dries.
The St.Petersburg-based journalist Viktor Tereshken, who served in the Leningradregion’s firefighting brigades in the 1980s, tells a grotesque story. Thefirefighters received a call that all 48 buildings in a village had burned downin a fire. There was nothing left to save, the destruction simply needed to bereported.
“Whatcaused the fire?”
“Theyburned dry grass.”
“Andwhat is the name of the village?”
“NovyePogoreltsy [New Victims-of-a-Fire].”
Thefirefighters were taken aback.
“Wheredid that name come from?”
“Theybuilt the village around 15 years ago after a fire.”
“Whatstarted that fire?”
“Theburning of dry grass.”
“Andwhat was the place called before?”
“Itburned down once before, right after the war. Probably also from burninggrass.”
In thecourse of some three or four decades, the residents of that unlucky village lostthe roofs over their heads, their possessions, and risked their lives threetimes, but still did not learn any lesson from such dangerous entertainment.This evidently unreasonablebehavior (which is not, however, a strictly Russian peculiarity–just rememberthe horrible forest fires in Indonesia, two “black Christmases” in arow in “civilized” Australia, and similar incidents) has deep culturalroots. Mass pyromania has been inherited from ancient cultivators of the land,who continuously struggled to free their homesteads from a continuouslyencroaching ocean of forests. The real crime is that the situation has beenreversed over the last 100 years: Today forests exist only as isolated islandssurrounded by inhabited areas, by a manmade landscape. These forests and theirinhabitants have almost no chance of being saved.
Almostall of Myravevsky Park–the only non-state forest reserve in Russia, a kind ofresearch range for sustainable forestry and agricultural techniques–burned tothe ground at the end of April. The park burned together with the nests of theendangered Daursky crane. The cause of the fire was standard: burning grass on aneighboring property. The park had struggled with this every year, but this yearthe situation proved too much: The dry weather and strong winds that settledover the south of Eastern Siberia made the fire impossible to contain. As theEmergency Situations Ministry delicately put it, current data “allows for aprognosis for 2003 of forest fire risks above the average yearly level.”What the “average yearly level” is can be judged from last year’sstatistics, when 43,400 fires ravaged 2 million hectares of land, two-thirds ofwhich was forest. Last year was mediocre, with an average number of fires andarea damaged by forest fires. Only in Central Russia were the fires unusuallystrong, but their impact on this “holiday of fire” was minimal.
“Understand,”the press officer of the Emergency Situations Ministry hammered out his point tome, “that we take over when a fire either has already reached a settlementor when a huge area is burning and the smoke reaches a city. We cannot handleevery little fire.”
On theone hand, the spokesman was completely right. The ministry’s air fleet is shorton mobile strength. The water dispenser attached to an Mi-8 helicopter releases5 tons of water, the one attached to an Mi-26, 15 tons. This type of helicoptercan refill at the nearest large source of water without returning to base oreven touching the ground. According to the crew of the Mi-8 that was working intandem with an Mi-26 that crashed recently, the latter managed to refill five orsix times from the nearest river, the Ingoda, in an hour and a half. Theministry has about 50 of each type of helicopter and also possesses Ilyushin-76airplanes that can carry up to 42 tons of water (now that Minister Sergey Shoiguhas grounded all the helicopters until the reason for the recent crash can beascertained, the Il-76s are the only airborne firefighting equipment available).But airplanes can only obtain water at airports and their accuracy is nothingcompared to that of the helicopters.
Currently,there are 560 source fires in Russia. It is clear that helicopters and airplanescan 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’sproud position is reflected in the orders sent down to the Moscow region’sfirefighting department: “Don’t go after grass fires.” Evidently,those at the “emergency situations” ministry wait until a situationbecomes an emergency .
This isnot due to laziness. The resources of the firefighters–people, equipment, fuel,etc.–are limited. They can be increased, but that takes money. Money, ofcourse, will be found, but not before the fire and smoke has reached settlementsand regional centers, which happened last year in Moscow and has alreadyhappened this year in Irkutsk. Identifying the source of a fire and putting itout before it spreads would be inexpensive and effective, but for some reasonthere is no money for such activities. It is reckoned that preventive measuresand liquidating smaller fires should be handled by the Forestry Service, whichis part of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
This maybe impossible in the middle of Siberia where the tracts of forest are huge, butit is completely realistic in Central Russia. The way the Forestry Service isorganized, however, does not leave the forest rangers enough time and strengthto carry out these responsibilities. With monthly salaries reaching only a fewhundred rubles [100 rubles is a little more than $3], they are forced earn moneythrough commercial logging enterprises, a practice euphemistically called”forest treatment” [cutting and selling wood under the pretense ofcaring for the forest]. Fighting small source fires is not a task that can behandled in the time not devoted to their chief duties.
Theforest is endangered by this conflict of interests as are those people who endup in the path of the fires, either through circumstance or professionalresponsibility.