Moscow — Russia usually sees most forest fires in August, so experts consider this year’s rate so far of 250-300 fires burning every day as “sparing” compared with last year’s figure of double that. A total of 10,058 fires covering 219,981 hectares of Russia’s forests have been registered since March, when the forest-fire season usually begins. The number has gone down by 47.4% compared with the same period last year, and the area hit by fires has shrunk by 41.2%.
Comparison with figures over the past decade is still more impressive: On average, 34,000 fires broke out within this period, destroying up to 2 million hectares, or 0.2% of Russia’s forests, in one season. The figures look shocking, but, according to Dr. Tatyana Potapova, “these statistics are better on average than those for the whole world, where 0.5% of forests are destroyed every year.”
However, the number of fires does not always give us the real picture: Alexander Isayev, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that the actual area affected by forest fires is twice as large – fires are simply not registered in a number of the northern regions of Siberia and the Far East. About 2.7 million hectares of unaccounted-for forests for which no one is responsible and the absence of necessary infrastructure make management of that land impossible.
Even so, positive trends are obvious.
“The desired effect was achieved after a series of measures taken this year,” said Roman Shchipov, an adviser to the head of the Federal Forestry Agency. “The main one is that funding was doubled to prevent the spread of fires or extinguishing them at an early stage.”
The Agency allocated 800 million rubles ($28.17 million) for these purposes, and another 900 million has been spent as part of a forest management pilot project to purchase and deliver heavy firefighting equipment in the most at-risk regions – the Khabarovsk and Krasnoyarsk territories in the Far East and the Arkhangelsk and Leningrad regions in the north-west. The financial boosts have made it possible to intensify inspection flights by firefighting aircraft, improve notification about emerging fires, and intensify the removal of dead wood and fallen trees.
This year, the Forest Fire Protection Concept, formulated by scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center of Ecology and Forest Productivity, was put into practice. The Concept envisages an entirely new approach to combating fires, for example, proposing to classify them and distinguish between fires that should be extinguished and those that should be left alone.
This approach is not only practical but scientifically justified.
“To fight a fire that has got out of control is a very irrational waste of money earmarked for forest protection – if, of course, the fire doesn’t threaten people or economic facilities,” said Georgy Korovin, head of the Center for Environmental Problems and Forest Productivity.
The old policy of total suppression of all fires without exception was “a mistake of the former years,” he added.
Scientists view the phenomenon of fires as a permanent natural factor as part of the natural process in forest ecosystems. Burning old grass and thickets creates room for young greenery, thus helping to improve the habitat for wild animals and destroying hotbeds of diseases and vermin. Many kinds of pine trees open their cones to throw out seeds only during a fire. Scientists believe that the Siberian taiga forests and other coniferous woods in the Asian part of the country owe their origin to fires.
The Concept also suggests more extensive use of the currently unpopular in Russia method of “fighting fire with fire.” The method is already being used in the Krasnoyarsk territory under the guidance of the local Sukachyov Forestry Institute. Dr. Erik Valendik, laboratory head at the institute, said that controllable fires may be the most effective and cheapest method of preserving forests and forming their structure.