Georgia — Mikheil Tediashvili remembers the day last month when he looked up and saw an unfamiliar military helicopter gliding over the lush peaks that surround his tiny village in central Georgia.
Half an hour later the 80-year old farmer saw the first flames, which spread rapidly amid strong winds, engulfing the entire mountain-side and turning the forest of pines, firs and spruces above Daba into an inferno.
Nearly a month later, smouldering ashes and the odd plume of smoke are still evident.
The blaze broke out at the height of Georgia’s brief war with Russia and burned for weeks, ravaging up to 950 hectares (2,350 acres) of forest on the edge of the Borjomi-Kharagauli national park, known for rare flora and fauna and a favoured destination for “eco-tourists”.
“We are devastated, it is as if we were dead,” said Tediashvili, standing on a sloping wasteland of ashes and burnt tree stumps.
The Georgian government says it will take 50 to 70 years for the burnt sections of the forest to regrow.
The damage to the mountains above Daba, some 160 km (100 miles) southwest of Tbilisi, is seen as a national tragedy by environmentalists, Georgian officials and locals.
It is a reminder that the costs of the war, sparked when Georgia tried to retake the separatist region of South Ossetia on Aug. 7 and was crushed by Russian troops, go beyond the casualties, displaced people and bombed buildings that have shaken this former Soviet state.
Georgia has blamed the destruction on Russia, whose helicopters it says dropped bombs or incendiaries that set the trees and shrubs alight. The Russian defence ministry denies its troops had anything to do with the blaze.
“It’s an ecological catastrophe,” said Georgian Environment Minister Irakly Gvaladze, who has been in the area supervising efforts to extinguish the fire since it started on Aug. 12.
He gave Reuters reporters a tour of the damage, climbing steep, rocky paths to where the tree-line changes from deep green to charcoal-black.
Gvaladze says the government tried to bring in special fire-fighting planes from Turkey and Ukraine in the days after the blaze started but Moscow closed off the airspace, leaving men in trucks to fight flames on steep slopes thousands of feet above the valley.
When two Turkish planes were let in, it took over two weeks for them and a team of 3 Georgian helicopters, 20 fire trucks and 400 people to put out the fire.
A mission from the World Bank arrived in Georgia on Monday to assess the impact of the fire on a mountain landscape that local experts say is home to a large number of endemic species.
“Considering the total area of the forest in Georgia this does not appear huge, but it is too much for this area which has special significance from a biodiversity and recreational point of view,” said Nugzar Zazanashvili, director of the WWF Caucasus conservation programme in Tbilisi.
The area is home to endemic Caucasian fir trees, Caucasian pines, Oriental beaches and Oriental spruces. Among animals threatened by the blaze, Zazanashvili says, are Caucasian red deer and Caucasian salamander as well as brown bears, European lynxes, chamois and otters.
“The animal population is very rare. This is a priority conservation area, a pristine natural forest which doesn’t exist in other parts of the world at these latitudes,” he said.
After the fire, he said there was a risk of soil erosion, particularly if there are heavy rains in the coming months.
The mountains around Daba, nearby Tsagveri and the mineral-water town of Borjomi look like a cross between the Italian Alps and the rolling hills of California’s Napa Valley.
They are one of the natural jewels of a country that also boasts 100 km of beautiful Black Sea coastline to the south and a blooming wine region to the east.
The area used to serve as a training ground for the Soviet national ski team in winter. In summer, Georgians and a growing number of foreign tourists have flocked here for its natural beauty and pleasant weather.
Romiko Nosadze, the 67-year old owner of a grocery in the central square of Tsagveri, says the woods have a special importance for local people.
Now she worries about the risk of landslides and the impact on tourism.
“We live from the tourists who come for the woods,” Nosadze said. “If they don’t come we will have to move elsewhere.”