Ukraine battles massive fires in Luhansk region

09 September 2020

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KYIV – At the end of September, forest fires broke out in many parts of the Luhansk region. By October 1, a total of 146 fires were discovered by the State Emergency Service. In the week since the fires broke out, the disaster took 11 lives, injured 19 people and caused the evacuation of 150 people. Thirty-two settlements were endangered.

More than 2,000 personnel and over 200 units of equipment were involved in the firefighting, according to the First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Serhii Yarovyy.

“On September 30, a difficult situation arose in the Luhansk region due to the spread of fires. The State Emergency Service and the State Forest Resources Agency are working at 30 spots of the blaze. The total area covered by the fire is more than 11,000 hectares,” Mr. Yarovyy said on October 1. The police have opened 11 criminal proceedings, and 30 operational investigation groups have been set up to inspect all damaged objects, including about 250 buildings.

The Stanytsia Luhanska raion administration, citing information provided by local residents, reported that Russian forces in the Donbas had carried out shelling of the forest, possibly causing the blazes.

The head of the State Emergency Service, Mykola Chechotkin, stated that the SES’s primary efforts are now focused on work in the settlements: “As a result of the difficult situation, 32 settlements fell into the affected area yesterday. The fire’s rapid spread was whipped up by a strong wind, up to 28 meters per second, which is a windstorm… The work in the settlements is almost completed, and SES forces will be redeployed to the forest ranges. Three fire planes and a helicopter were engaged in extinguishing the fires,” Mr. Chechotkin said.

According to the head of the State Emergency Service, the fire was prevented from spreading to the region’s main gas pipeline station. Fires were eliminated with minimal consequences at an antiseptic plant and a household chemicals warehouse.

“This disaster is unprecedented in scale not only for the region, but also for the whole of Ukraine. People are alarmed and scared, and are convinced that this is deliberate arson, or to put it simply – sabotage,” Solomiia Bobrovska, a national deputy from the Holos faction who visited the Luhansk region during the fires, told The Ukrainian Weekly.

“I will definitely have a lot of questions to the Security Service of Ukraine and counterintelligence, most importantly, why the authorities did not work. Such sabotage cannot be repeated,” Ms. Bobrovska commented. “In some places, about a third of the village was completely destroyed. The fire affected more than three dozen settlements. I admire the firefighters and everyone who works in coordination. There is still a lot of work ahead, and you cannot relax.”

“I believe that the Military-Civil Administration has performed excellently in coordination with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, the National Police, the Armed Forces, forestry services and the civilian population. They worked quickly and efficiently. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine staff from all over Ukraine was involved in eliminating fires in the region,” noted Ms. Bobrovska. “The Parliament can influence the solution of this problem by demanding an immediate report from the chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, allocation of funds for environmental protection, as well as an inquiry into the real causes of the largest fires in the Luhansk region since independence,” she added.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed condolences to the relatives of those killed in the forest fires in Ukraine’s east. His remarks came a during a working trip to the Rivne region on October 1.

“Now our military and employees of the State Emergency Service and the police are working very fast together. We were making central roads, so the equipment is now getting to any needed place very quickly. Everything available was sent, everyone is working,” the president said. He noted that criminal proceedings had been instituted over the forest fires.

“Professionals and law enforcement officers must say whether the cause was a provocation or other reasons,” Mr. Zelens­kyy underscored. He added that these are not the first fires this year, particularly in the Luhansk region.

National Deputy Bobrovska said she spoke with locals during her visit to the affected region. “I heard stories about how someone accidentally discovered fires in the middle of the night in the villages and woke everyone up to put it out. Also, fires were found in all frontline areas, even where there is no military. A special threat was the possibility of a fire in the Severodonetsk factory Azot, a plant that produces ammonia and chemical fertilizers,” she said.

As of October 6, the most challenging situation had developed along the line of demarcation in the territory of Stanytsia Luhanska, Novoaidar and Severodonetsk, according to the State Emergency Service. The SES’s main efforts were aimed at protecting the 32 settlements located in that area, field artillery of the Armed Forces near the village of Borovenky and the gas distribution station on the outskirts of the village of Oleksandrivka. Due to the integrated use of ground forces and aircraft, the fire was prevented from spreading to settlements, and there was no need for evacuation.

According to preliminary estimates, the area covered by the fire is now more than 20,000 hectares. On October 5 alone, 320 tons of water were discharged by SES aircraft in the Luhansk region. Since the beginning of the firefighting, 1,906 tons of water have been utilized by aircraft.

The bodies of 11 victims of the fire were found: three people died as a result of poisoning by combustion products, one from burns, three due to heart attacks; the cause of death for four others has yet to be established. Nineteen people, including three SES officers, were hospitalized.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal reported that the fires also damaged the Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint. “There are no significant infrastructure losses. As soon as the smoke disappears there, it will be possible to resume communication within a day,” he advised.

Mr. Shmyhal stressed that the state’s strategy for financial assistance to victims remains unchanged. “Money from the reserve fund will be allocated as soon as the losses are calculated. A sum of 300,000 hrv (about $10,500 U.S.) will be allocated for a destroyed house, 200,000 hrv (about $7,000) for a deceased family member, 50,000 hrv (about $1,750) for partial damage to a house, and 20,000 hrv (about $700) for damage to a farm. The region also stands ready to pay assistance from its reserve fund,” the prime minister explained.

“As regards protection from enemy sabotage, the work apparently failed,” National Deputy Bobrovska observed. “On the first day, there were about 85 fires, the next day – already 116, and that eventually increased to more than 140 fires. This is not a natural disaster, but deliberate sabotage by the enemy, which dragged the entire frontline area into chaos,” she charged.

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