Russian volunteers helping quell wildfires

Russian volunteers helping quell wildfires

16 May 2017

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Russia –  Environmental groups say local authorities need more funding, better training for professional firefighters.
16 May 2017

Fire crews are currently fighting ten large fires across Russia and have already extinguished 3,500 fires this year, Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov said yesterday.

Fires have destroyed 78 houses, Puchkov told a meeting chaired by President Vladimir Putin, adding that the Siberian Irkutsk and Buryatia regions are facing the most complex situation, TASS reports.

The way the authorities respond to the fires that annually char large swathes of land in Siberia and other parts of the country has changed since 2010, when suffocating smoke from forest and peat fires blanketed Moscow during a record summer heat wave, killing more than 70 and forcing thousands of city residents to flee.

Since then, volunteer firefighting teams have taken an increasingly important role in spotting and fighting wildfires.

Greenpeace crews regularly work side by side with professional firefighters, and as The Moscow Times writes, they sometimes have more sophisticated equipment and specialized knowledge than the publicly-funded professionals.

The deputy head of the Moscow region’s Emergency Situations Ministry, Alexei Loginov, said Greenpeace is “definitely” providing a useful service.

“We play the role of a highly-qualified specialist group which is a very unusual role for a civic organization,” said Grigory Kuksin, the coordinator of Greenpeace volunteers. “We hope that one day firemen and forest workers will be more qualified than volunteers but for the moment we are trying to preserve this knowledge.”

Kuksin said cooperation with local authorities has improved since 2010, but some officials under-report the size of fires for fear of being held responsible by their superiors.

Greenpeace charged last year that Russian authorities were significantly under-reporting the extent of fires across the country. Using satellite photos, the group estimated that fires had burned up to 3.5 million hectares (13,500 square miles) in the first half of 2016, while officials reported just 669,000 hectares burned, the Guardian reported.

The effects of climate change and the lack of firefighting resources could see repeats of the catastrophic 2010 and 2012 fire seasons, Greenpeace warned.

Early spring is a high-risk period for forest fires in central Russia, The Moscow Times says. The fires are often started through negligence or by people burning dry grass.

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