Forest fires continue to severely affect large areas of Far Eastern Russia, especially the Khabarovsk region and the island of Sakhalin. This sitrep will report findings of the UNDAC mission to Sakhalin from 3 to 6 October 1998. The mission is at present assessing the situation in Khabarovsk region.
2. Areas Affected
Both forest and peat areas have been affected in the island of Sakhalin. With high winds, flames have spread rapidly across the crowns of the trees, jumping on occasion across firebreaks. In forestry terms, Federal Forestry Service reported that although in some areas the trunks are still standing, the roots are often dead because the fire has been burning deep into the soil.
On Sakhalin, the State Committee on Environment Protection reported that up to 80,000 hectares have been damaged by the fires. In the badly-hit district of Tymovskoye, visited by the UNDAC team, forestry officials reported that of 61,000 hectares (ha) in the area, some 37,000 ha are reported to have been burned. Of this amount 21,000 ha were forested. As of 5 October nine fires continued to burn in the district, covering some 16,000 ha.
The UNDAC team visited the village of Gorki, 30 km north of Tymovskoye, which was destroyed by the fire on 20 September. 598 people were made homeless and are now in temporary accommodation on the island. Flames spread across the crowns of the forest and struck the village at 16.30. By 22.00 the village was gone. The fire reportedly spread so quickly in the strong winds that people had no time to collect belongings. The disaster site is now strewn with personal belongings. Because most people had worked for an enterprise which had recently gone bankrupt, money was in short supply and personal belongings were generally not insured.
Twelve other settlements were threatened by fire but have been successfully defended. Although the situation has improved, as weather conditions have become colder and wetter, children have to be evacuated temporarily when calm conditions and high levels of smoke make breathing difficult.
The Sakhalin Administration also reported that in several areas oil wells were shut down and sealed before the fires reached them.
Local authorities are concerned about what can be done for the large areas of sterilised forest area. Access to remote sites is difficult and expensive, and restoration work for damaged timber resources will be extremely expensive. This is worsened in the case of Sakhalin because they rely almost entirely on foreign exports to the South and East Asia region. Given the recent economic crisis in the region, prices and demands have fallen, placing increased pressure on the island’s export potential.
Ecological impacts are likely to be significant also. Initial reports from the Regional Chairman of the State Committee on Environment Protection suggest that up to 50 per cent of ground-nesting birds, including game birds, have been killed by the fires, 10-29 per cent of mammal species in the area have been killed and three Red Data Book species, including two eagle species, have been severely affected.
4. Projected Evolution
The fires are still burning and causing damage, but unless weather conditions become hot and dry again, it is likely that the worst is over for Sakhalin. However, the following issues will need to be addressed in the coming weeks and months:
Rehabilitation and support for the displaced population of Gorki, especially important given the imminent onset of winter.
Restoration of damaged forest resources.
Detailed examination of ecological impacts.
Lessons learned for incorporation into future disaster prevention and preparedness planning.
II. NATIONAL RESPONSE
5. Organisation: National & Local Authorities
At the national level, the Russian Ministry of Emergencies (EMERCOM) and the Federal Forestry Service are playing key roles in supporting local operations. The Government has made 10 million Roubles available to Sakahlin to help cover expenses.
The Governor of Sakhalin is in overall charge of coordination in the region, with the Deputy Governor being the Chairman of the Regional Emergency Committee. Regular emergency update meetings are held with representatives from the Federal Forestry Service, Fire Service, EMERCOM, Migration Department, Health and Social Services, State Committee on Environment Protection, and other representatives.
There are two sets of fire fighters; the Federal Forestry Service fire-fighters have concentrated on making fire-breaks and tackling the fires within the forest areas, whereas the munical Fires Service have concentrated on protecting settlements. It appears that there are two separate chains of command.
Response has been a combination of ground and aerial fire-fighting. The ground response teams, made up of firefighters from local Forestry Service and Fire Brigades, have been attempting to protect settlements from the spread of fire. The Governor of Sakhalin highlighted that some 1000 personnel, backed up with 140 units of special equipment such as bulldozers, had been committed to the emergency. Ground forces have been cutting fire breaks to prevent the spread of fires as much as possible.
Two EMERCOM IL-76 water bombers made six sorties, dropping more than 250 tonnes of water on fire areas. In addition, light helicopters belonging to EMERCOM and local companies based in Sakhalin have been used for water drops. The helicopters were reportedly quite successful in providing local support for threatened villages. This approach, although effective, is very expensive and used sparingly.
Response efforts are being assisted by satellite coverage of the sites, with the data being made available to the Federal Forestry Service on a daily basis.
The regional representatives of the State Committee on Environment Protection are compiling a detailed report into the ecological effects of the fires.
For the 598 people displaced from Gorki, the following arrangements have been made and agreed by the Government in Moscow:
Each family will receive a Resettlement Certificate enabling them to relocate, if required, to any part of the Russian Federation except Moscow, St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk. Certificates will be available soon according to the Governor.
In the meantime families have been temporarily housed in several sites including in student accommodation in the district capital of Tymovskoye. Families are being provided with free food and medical attention.
Clothes have been made available from local donations.
Each person will receive 50,000 Roubles from the Government, this is in addition to the 830 Roubles per person already paid from the Regional budget.
The village of Gorki is now off-limits and checkpoints prevent people entering the site.
50,000 Roubles has been collected from other local sources.
In overview, the obvious immediate constraint is from weather conditions. Whilst rain has now been falling over parts of Sakhalin and the north of Khabarovsk region, strong winds, and dry conditions over a long period of time, have provided perfect conditions for forest fires. If present weather conditions continue, there is still the potential for significant additional damage.
However, the main constraints have been of an operational nature. The ground attacks on the fire have suffered from too little equipment, lack of fuel and food, and too many sites to be protected. All official sources highlighted the problems caused by the current economic crisis in Russia. Costs have risen for fuel and equipment. As costs have increased, there have been fewer aerial patrols over threatened areas, and so early warning systems have not been as efficient as they had been a decade ago. The Federal Forestry Service Deputy Chief in Moscow reported that ten years ago the service had been able to patrol up to five times a day, if required. Now, they can only patrol on average once a week. This has allowed small fires to grow to a point where they can present a significant threat.
EMERCOM aircraft had to fly 900km round-trip from the nearest airfield to drop the water on the fire. This required the use of 20tonnes of fuel to be able to drop 42tonnes of water per flight. In addition, the nature of the fires made the use of aerial water bombing not very successful, due to the extensive smoke and the wide-scale nature of the fires. After six sorties, the aircraft returned to Moscow.
Lack of effective telecommunications equipment has also been highlighted, with the mobile crews being placed in danger by not being able to respond to changes in fire direction as effectively as they should be able to.
III. ON-SITE LEVEL INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
8. International Resources Arrived On-Site
The UNDAC team spent three days on site meeting with local officials, the population of Gorki and visiting the disaster site.
Oil companies based in Sakhalin have contributed USDollar 50,000 to a special emergency account established by the Regional Administration.
9. Priority Relief Needs
At present, it appears that the immediate humanitarian needs are being provided for and the priorities will be to build capacity to be able to respond, should the situation worsen.
V. MEANS OF DELIVERY OF INTERNATIONAL ASSISTANCE
10. Logistics and Distribution System
The international airport at Yuzhno-Sakhalin is open and capable of receiving aircraft including Boeing 767 and IL-76’s type of aircraft. The airport is 900km round trip from the main disaster site. There is a small airstrip near Tymovskoye used for helicopter landings.
An effective train system operates from Yuzhno-Sakhalin north to the top of the island and the west coast. There is a station at Tymovskoye.
11. Donors wishing to channel their contributions through OCHA should transfer funds to OCHA Account N0. Co.590.160.1 at the UBS (former Swiss Bank Corporation), Case Postale 2770, CH-1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland, with reference: Russian Federation-Forest Fires.
12. For coordination purposes, donors are kindly requested to inform OCHA Geneva as indicated below, of relief missions/pledges/contributions and their corresponding values by item.
Telephone Number: +41-22-917-1234 In case of Emergency only: +41-22-917-2010 Desk Officer: Mr. S. Piazzi, Direct Tel. + 41-22-917-3518 Telex: 414242 OCHA CH Fax: +41-22-917-0023 E-mail:Info@dha.unicc.org Press to contact: Ms. E. Ponomareva, Tel.+41-22-917-2336