Georgia — Turkish pilots flying low level to dodge air defence radars water-bombed forest fires burning in Georgia’s Caucasus Mountain region, despite a Russian army threat to shoot down aircraft not clearing flight plans with Moscow first, Georgian officials said Thursday.
It was a peculiar and quite possibly extremely dangerous mission for the aircraft, three little Canadian-built water bomber planes belonging to Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and the Istanbul city government, as the ‘scoopers’ carried water from Turkey’s Kars region through Russian-controlled air space.
‘But we could not have got the forest fires under control without them,’ said Irakli Gvalidze, Georgia’s Minister of Forestry and Environmental Protection in an interview. ‘Without those Turkish pilots helping with the Borjomi fires, we could have had an environmental disaster.’
The Georgian village Borjomi, the source of the widely-exported Georgian mineral water by the same name, is set in a charming river valley rivaling Switzerland or Austria, and was once a resort region for the highest-placed Soviet apparatchiks.
The town now is dilapidated but its nature has remained untouched, and Alpine hiking in the region is considered among the best in the Caucasus.
But Borjomi’s picturesque valleys filled with haze and then black smoke late last week, as Russian forces advanced south and west from the central Georgian city Gori. Borjomi’s high mountain forests, some of it old-growth evergreens thought to be a millenium old, were tinder-dry and burning in six to eight locations.
The precise cause of the fires has yet to be determined. Georgia’s government, lightning-quick to brand Russia evil, within hours of the first reports of the Borjomi fires accused Russian helicopter pilots of dropping incendiary bombs in the pristine forests as an act of pure vandalism.
Russian army officers speaking in Moscow scoffed, pointing out their forces already were demolishing Georgian military and transportation infrastructure at will, so why bother burning trees? The Russian air force helicopters were merely inspecting the fires to make sure Russian troops weren’t threatened, Kremlin officials said.
Georgia’s government the next day, Thursday, announced it had arranged with Turkey to fly water bomber aircraft (planes that scoop up water from a lake and then drop it on a fire) but Moscow would not approve flight plans.
Colonel General Anatoliy Nagovitsyn, vice head of Russia’s army general staff said neither the Georgians nor the Turks had even asked about flying into Russia-controlled airspace.
A subtext of the exchanges, Tbilisi observers said, was Russian touchiness about air operations in general. During the six days of fighting Georgia’s army did little to hold the Russian tanks back, but Russia’s air force received a black eye with seven aircraft shot down by unexpectedly effective Georgian anti-aircraft missiles.
The Borjomi fires by the weekend had converged, engulfing an estimated 250 square hectares of forest.
Georgian firemen were stymied. Not only were the fires in rugged terrain beyond even primitive roads, but Russian army road checkpoints were refusing Georgian firefighting vehicles even to move along the main roads, in keeping with Nagovistin’s standing order that Georgian civilians may use Georgia’s road network, but not people or vehicles from Georgia’s government.
The solution, Gvalidze said, was Turko-Georgian cunning. The Turks would scoop up water from a lake near Kars, turn off their identification radars, travel by nap-of-the-earth through the Caucasus to a GPS coordinate sent by the Georgians, bomb the fire, and then fly back to Turkey for more water.
Three days and 30 successful water drops later, the Borjomi forest fires was under control, with Georgian firefighters having reached the much-reduced blaze by mountain trails not watched by the Russians.
Turkish diplomats confirmed the flights had taken place, and that Turkey had coordinated the firefighting operation with Georgia, not Russia.
‘Turkey has assisted other countries in fire-fighting before, this is normal for us,’ said Ufuk Bey, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman. He said he was not aware of how precisely the Turkish aircraft avoided Russian anti-aircraft guns and missiles.
‘There was no interference from the Russians,’ Bey said.
‘Those Turkish pilots, they are Georgian heroes,’ Gvalidze said. ‘I don’t know their names, but they are brave men, and they have done a great thing for my country.’