Monday, September 06, 2010

Russian Government Taking the Heat for Russia's 2010 Forest Fires

"Vladimir Chuprov of Moscow’s Greenpeace office said Mr Putin’s reform had left 70,000 forest guards without work, dismantling a monitoring system that would have been of great help in the current situation. 'Now no one even knows exactly where the fires are,' he said. 'The 120,000 men from the emergency ministry sent to fight the fires don’t even know how to fight forest fires because they are trained only in fighting fires in cities and industrial objects.'”---Financial Times (8-7-10)

Russian environmentalists, forestry workers, and ordinary citizens are blaming the catastrophic extent of this summer's forest fires on the federal government's and Putin's miserly and neglectful policies.

Russian Greenpeace has published an article titled "A Miser Pays Twice" (8-10-10) after the Russian proverb скупой платит дважды, the Russian equivalent of penny-wise pound-foolish. See my earlier article about Russia's fires and the role of NASA in locating the fires in the remote regions of Russia here.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty visited Russians fighting the fires and reported what Russians are saying about the fires. Be sure to visit the RFE/RL site and see the videos and slideshow.

RFE/RL (8-9-10) reports:

Ivan Yevangulov [John Evangelist] sits wearily on a bench in front of the forestry workers' headquarters in this small village in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.

Yevangulov, who is in his mid-40s, has worked for two decades as a ranger protecting these once-lush forests filled with pine and birch trees. But now, he says, he's helpless to stop uncontrollable wildfires from destroying the forest where he's spent his entire career.

"The fire is 2 to 4 kilometers long and the flames are reaching 35 to 40 meters high," Yevangulov says. "Just imagine. And it spreads quickly. It's not possible to escape on foot. It's moving so quickly that it's impossible to stop it. The fire engines that were here had to turn around and leave."

This region has seen some of the worst damage since wildfires first broke out across western Russia last month, fanned by an unprecedented heat wave and bone-dry earth. But the oblast is hardly alone. More than 500 forest and peat fires are continuing to burn across 170,000 hectares of Russia, with new fires igniting faster than the old ones can be put out.

In Moscow, scorching temperatures and heavy smog caused by the fires are being blamed for nearly doubling the capital's mortality rate, with health officials saying as many as 700 people are now dying each day. Beyond the city, massive fires have killed more than 50 people, razed scores of homes, and destroyed thousands of trees.

It has also brought public anger over government negligence to the boiling point. As frustration grows over the uncontrolled spread of the fires, many critics say state cuts in fire-fighting resources and new laws on forestry management are to blame -- and that the Kremlin elite should account for their role in the disaster.

'Unprotected' Forest

"It became very windy and the whole situation got out of control -- I mean, completely out of control," Yevangulov says, describing a deadly "wall of fire" that blazed toward Rizadeyevo before veering off course and sparing the village the destruction witnessed in other parts of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.

In the past, such fires were easier to contain. There once used to be as many as 70,000 rangers like Yevangulov patrolling and protecting assigned tracts of the country's 775 million hectares of forest. As employees of the Soviet-era State Forestry Service, the rangers -- together with 200,000 additional forestry workers -- were considered the first and best line of defense against forest fires.

But a radical revamp of the service has left Russia's forests virtually unprotected. Sharp spending cuts in the 1990s began to drain the forestry service of employees and equipment. And a 2007 Forestry Code further decimated the ranks by moving responsibility for forest supervision away from the state and onto local authorities or individual renters in or around forested areas -- including wood-processing companies and developers with no vested interest in protecting the forests.

Aleksei Yaroshenko, a forestry expert with Greenpeace Russia, says the new code effectively eliminated in a single blow the entire forest-protection system built up in the Soviet era -- cutting back rangers by 75 percent and replacing them with smaller, less effective, ranks of office workers.

"There are no more forest rangers, in the old sense of the word -- people who were right there, on the spot, to protect the forest," Yaroshenko says. "These people basically no longer exist. There are other forest-management office employees now who occasionally do something in the forest, but for the most part they fill out forms and do bureaucratic tasks. So the forest is unprotected -- and, of course, this is how it's been for the past 3 1/2 years."

Too Little, Too Late

There are currently an estimated 162,000 people involved in efforts to contain the fires. Very few, however, are traditional rangers or state-funded firefighters. Instead, they are a motley assortment of army soldiers, volunteer firemen -- some from as far away as Belarus, Bulgaria, and France -- and even local villagers, some armed only with shovels. Even in areas where trained firefighters are on hand, a crippling shortage of equipment has made traditional fire-fighting techniques difficult, if not impossible.

Such setbacks have focused increased scrutiny on the Forest Code. Signed into law by then-President Vladimir Putin, the code was supported by real-estate developers and the timber lobby, which was eager to lay claim to one of the country's last great extractable resources.

The legislation sparked an uproar among environmentalists and regional officials, who said the move would expose Russia's pristine forests to unchecked development and sharply raise the chance of wildfires.

Andrei Gorelov, a former ranger in the Vyksunsky district of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, says the forestry workers that remain are more focused on timber production than on preventing and fighting forest fires.

"There are fewer and fewer forest rangers. When I worked as a ranger here we had about 30 people working with us -- rangers, other forestry workers, assistants," Gorelov says. "And when there was a forest fire, we mobilized and we were focused on containing the fire, not on timber production. And now there is simply nobody to do that."

Gorelov adds that even in seasons when there were a lot of fires, forestry workers were able to respond quickly to contain the blazes. "There was a time when there were seven or eight new fires a day. We always mobilized rapidly, to come and locate the fire's epicenter quickly. We dug ditches around the fire so it wouldn't spread and we would douse it with water. And that was all you needed," he says.

Crisis Management

With the death toll mounting and homes and forest land continuing to burn, the government is facing a monumental challenge to its preferred image of implacable control. (The recent announcement that Russia will ban grain exports in the face of a disastrous, drought-afflicted harvest, is likely to send food prices soaring and weaken the Kremlin's standing even further.) [Visit the site, see the videos, and read the entire article.]

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