Russia — Lack of funding and equipment hampers efforts to prevent and extinguish fires despite pledges and threats from Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.
Only a year ago Russia was overwhelmed by an exceptional heat wave, triggering hundreds of fires that destroyed thousands of hectares of woodland. Burning peat bogs around Moscow stifled the city in a thick cloud of bitter smoke.
Now, Russia is burning again. Since the beginning of this year more than 1m hectares of forest have gone up in flames, or are still burning, outstripping the disastrous record of 2010. But the affected areas are more sparsely populated and far fewer people have been evacuated.
The far north of Russia is among the areas that have suffered the most. During the last week of July, Arkhangelsk and the Komi republic had temperatures exceeding 35C. More than 80 fire outbreaks were reported.
The far east has suffered too. At the beginning of August about 50 fires were raging, especially around Khabarovsk, Yakutsk and the island of Sakhalin. Southern Russia has not escaped: several villages have been evacuated around Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd, where temperatures rose above 40C in July.
In a country that is 97% forest or woodland, fires are an inevitable hazard. But the scale of last year’s disaster drew attention to the poor job the Russian authorities were doing to prevent and combat fires.
In 2006 Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister, took the job of supervising woodland out of the hands of 80,000 federal foresters and transferred responsibility to local authorities. Endemic corruption and inadequate regional budgets seriously jeopardised forest inspections and fire prevention.
Last autumn the federal government agreed to a bigger budget for monitoring forest fires, and launched a massive scheme to deal with the peat bogs in the Moscow area. After being drained during the Soviet era so the peat could be used as fuel, they have been left untended for decades.
But the administration’s efforts have not been equal to the task. In April President Dmitry Medvedev attacked bureaucrats who announced that plans to flood the peat bogs would be delayed. In a meeting broadcast on television, he said: “If you fail to control the fires … you’ll all be going to fight them in the peat bogs with your own hands.”
Fortunately the peat bogs have not so far given any trouble this year. But despite reassurances from the emergency situations minister, the lack of equipment, human resources and funds is often obvious.
Greenpeace claims that the government is playing down the situation. “Official reports indicate 93 hectares of land on fire in the Amur area; in fact it is more like 50,000 hectares, as can be seen from satellite images,” says an NGO spokesperson.
The Russian authorities have not so far asked for outside assistance. More than 5,000 fire-fighters have already been deployed, backed by 800 specialist units, some equipped with aircraft. Current, more favourable, weather conditions may make life easier, with temperatures dropping to more usual levels all over Russia.