Russia burns: an update

Lack of personnel and organizational incompetence have seriously hampered the Russian response to forest fires, writes Greenpeace's Alexei Yaroshenko. Worryingly, fires have reached some Chernobyl-affected regions, and many other villages have been essentially abandoned to their fate.

In July and early August 2010, the forest fire situation in the European part of Russia and the Urals was catastrophic. The scale of the fires, the number of villages affected by the fires and the number of victims among the civilian population who were not part of specific risk groups, exceeded the 1972 emergency. The last fire disaster of this scale in Russia was in 1937. As of 11 August, the forest fire situation in the European part of Russia remained critical.

The number of forest fires is falling in individual regions, but the number of regions affected is increasing. The reforms of the past decade have so reduced the number of forestry workers that there are too few to fight this quantity of forest fires.  The involvement of forces that were not qualified forestry specialists (from the Emergency Services Ministry, the army and others) was of relatively little use in extinguishing forest and peat fires.

Another serious problem is that the new forestry legislation does not provide for the possibility of sending qualified specialists for extinguishing forest fires from regions not badly affected (at present, the majority of regions in Siberia and the Far East) to regions with serious fire issues. Several hundred qualified specialists were eventually sent from Siberia to burning regions in European Russia, but this happened too late and was poorly organized. As a result, one of the main problems is the lack of experienced experts on putting out fires. There are simply not enough of them for all the forest fires, and because of this there is complete chaos in many areas.

The most serious fire situation continues to be in the Central, Volga, Urals and Southern federal districts (the Ryazan, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod Oblasts and the Republic of Mari El are currently the worst affected). A drastic increase in fire danger can be seen in almost all regions of the European North of Russia. In the majority of the territory of Siberia and the Far East, the fire situation is at present relatively calm.

This diagram of forests fire areas on the morning of 11 August 2010 in Russia is based on data from FIRMS (Fire Information Resource Management System). Fires are displayed with signs that are not to scale, and so the diagram gives an idea of the locations of fires, but not the area.

How much is burning and where 

According to the official report of the Federal forestry agency, the area that forest fires covered from the start of 2010 to 8 August was 945,268 hectares of lands of forest resources. The real area covered by forest fires on lands of forest resources and in forests on lands of other categories is, according to a preliminary assessment, at least 3 million hectares.

Official data show that the area that the forest fire area over the country as a whole still remains relatively small.  Last year, for example, during this period fire covered 1,819,756 hectares, i.e. over twice as much. This is because the main contribution to the total area covered by fire in Russia is made by major fires in forest tundra and in the mountains of the north of Siberia and the Far East, where fire can spread unimpeded over many dozen kilometres. In 2010 heavy snowfalls in winter and a late spring meant that fires in the north of Siberia and the Far East began much later than usual, and did not make a decisive contribution to the total area covered by fire. However, as official data differ greatly from the real state of affairs, one can only use them conditionally to monitor the situation (these data make it possible to judge tendencies to a certain extent, but not to evaluate the real damage done to the forests).

In the central regions of European Russia, in the Volga area and the Urals, fires do not usually spread over such a large area because there are fewer forests in these regions, and fire-fighting is carried out more intensively. But in 2010, it was these regions that saw the most serious forest fires. According to the official report of the Federal forestry agency, the area covered by forest fires on lands of forestry reserves in these three federal districts came to around 470,000 hectares (according to preliminary assessment: the real figure is over 1 million). In the Central federal district, the area covered by fires since the beginning of the year was 32 times greater than the same period last year, 27 times greater in the Volga district, and 6 times greater in the Urals district.

The Nizhny Novgorod Oblast has suffered the most from forest fires. The situation is also extremely critical in the Moscow, Ryazan, Vladimir, Voronezh, Lipetsk and Ivanovo Oblasts, and the republics of Mari El and Mordovia. Almost all the regions in central and southern European Russia and the Urals have been swept by fire. At present the zones of major forest fires are expanding north, going as far as the Republic of Karelia, the Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Republic of Komi.

Throughout most of Russia’s Asian territories, the forest fire situation remained relatively calm last week, and in the majority of regions in Siberia and the Far East there were almost no forest fires.

Losses and casualties

According to official data of the Russian Ministry of Regional Development, as of 6 August 2010, forest fires had completely or partially destroyed 127 population centres. This is an underestimate: in the official list, several villages are missing which have since officially been confirmed as destroyed. The list does not include dacha villages or localities in which the only houses destroyed were either used as dachas or temporarily empty. Neither does this official list include localities damaged by spring grass fires.

According to the Ministry for Health and Social Development, as of 6 August 2010 the forest fire death toll had reached 52. This, again, is clearly an underestimate: firstly, information on a number of regions is still being clarified, and secondly the data only include people killed by fire or smoke in settlements burnt down in the forest fires, i.e. not people who died from smoke inhalation in areas remote from the fires themselves. Serious levels of smoke pollution across enormous territories always aggravates chronic diseases of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and leads to a rise in the mortality rate. The number of premature deaths caused by smoke inhalation may be hundreds, if not thousands. Information on the number of victims and casualties of smoke inhalation is so far unavailable, and it is not even certain that any body in the country is keeping track of this.

Forest, peat and grass fires in 2010 did considerable damage not only to forests, people and villages, but also to various industrial and defence sites. The most serious damage was done by a forest fire on 29 July in the Kolomensky region of the Moscow Oblast, when a storage base of Russian Navy aviation equipment burnt down. According to preliminary assessments, the cost came to over 20 million rubles (equivalent to the total annual budget for proper state forest conservation). Many other sites related to the economy or the defence and industrial complex have also burnt down, and fires continue to threaten at least two important science towns (Sarov and Snezhinsk), and many industrial enterprises.

A new threat: fires in zones of radioactive pollution

Last week, a new threat arose: the spectre of major forest fires spreading in regions that were heavily polluted by radioactive isotopes as a result of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and other nuclear sites. At present, the number and size of loci of forest fires in polluted zones is increasing, primarily on the territory of the Russian Federation, in the so-called “Chernobyl trace” zone.

On 9 August, several loci of forest fires were observed in the western part of the Bryansk Oblast, a zone of heavy radioactive pollution some 8-25 km to the northwest of the town of Klintsy. These loci are the most dangerous because of the possible emission of radioactive pollutants into the atmosphere, endangering people’s lives and health. As of 11 August, all these fires had been extinguished, but scattered fires remain in zones of low and moderate pollution.

According to the federal state agency Roslesozashchita, there were 500 — mainly small — forest fires in areas polluted by radionuclides in the year up to 6 August.

Smoke pollution

Last week, plumes of smoke from individual forest and peat fires in the European region of Russia finally united into a single cloud stretching some 3000 km from the west to the east, and rising up to 12 kilometers into the stratosphere. The cloud covered the most densely populated regions of European Russia, the Urals and individual regions of Siberia. The cities that suffered the most smoke pollution were Moscow and cities in the east of Moscow: Tver, Vladimir, Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Cheboksary and Novocheboksarsk.

Russian forest fires have enveloped Moscow in a dangerous cloud of smog. (cc) RiMarkin

At present, the level of smoke pollution continues to increase, and soot and carbon monoxide is accumulating in the atmosphere. The level of smoke pollution of surface air depends on the specific place, moment, wind direction and meteorological characteristics. For example, on 10 August Moscow and nearby areas of the Moscow Oblast were clear of peat smoke because of a change in the wind direction: smoke from the Meshcherskaya fires was instead blown further north.

The main danger posed by smoke is via soot (microscopic coal particles) and carbon monoxide. Microscopic coal particles aggravate cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and also have carcinogenic qualities. These particles also have the ability to amass other pollutants and cause them to accumulate in people’s lungs. Carbon monoxide, meanwhile, hinders the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen; and in high concentrations causes severe poisoning (intoxication). Together, these two destructive factors of smoke have an extremely negative effect on people’s health, and may lead to premature death. Moistened gauze facemasks can protect people from the effects of microscopic coal particles, but there is no real protection from carbon monoxide (aside from staying indoors and refraining from opening windows and doors during periods of severe smoke pollution).

The smoke will probably remain in European Russia until at least September, unless there is very heavy rainfall.

The causes of the catastrophe

There are two main causes for the fire catastrophe in the forests of the European-Ural region of Russia. The first is the extreme drought that was experienced this year throughout most of that region. The second is the lack of state forest conservation, and the absence of a body taking responsibility for or looking after our country’s forests.

Droughts of a similar scale have taken place on the territory of European Russia two or three times a century. In the 20th century, for example, droughts of this nature were seen in 1936-37 and 1972, and on both occasions were accompanied by intense forest and peat fires. In many regions of European Russia, forests and peat lands dried out to such an extent that even in damp forests, the tiniest spark was sufficient for the leaves on the forest floor to start smoldering, which quickly turned into a forest fire. Almost all such fires are caused by people – throwing away cigarette butts, leaving fires unwatched etc.

The disappearance of government forestry conservation and the approximately four-fold reduction in the number of people employed in the forestry industry (since 2006) has led to a situation where the forest is practically abandoned. If there used to be around 70,000 forest rangers and another 130,000 employees of the forestry industry responsible for fire safety in forests, there are now only 12,000 people who have the right to carry out forest inspections (in practice they are almost completely involved in other work). As a result, there is no one to detect forest fires and put them out in time, and the vast majority of people who break fire safety rules avoid facing any kind of responsibility. And the later a forest fire is discovered, the more effort and money goes towards putting it out. Employees of the forestry industry have almost no effort left to spare

The fact that state forestry conservation can lessen the damage done by forest and peat fires by many times is shown by a comparison of the situation between the European part of Russia and Belarus. In European Russia, and on the majority of Belarussian territory, there is a severe drought, and a fire danger level of four or five (five is the maximum). In European Russia, fires have gone out of control and reached a catastrophic level; while in Belarus the vast majority of forest fires are put out on the day that they are detected. Major loci of forest fires detected by MODIS satellite pictures show 3-4 fires at most in Belarus at the same time, while in Russia there are thousands of them. There are no major peat fires in Belarus at all, although there is no less peat in Belarus than in the central region of European Russia.

Who puts out the fires?

According to the official line given by national media, the Emergency Situations Ministry and organizations subordinate to this ministry are currently playing the leading role in tackling the fires. Officially, the Emergency Ministry coordinates work for putting out major forest and peat fires; brings in volunteers; coordinates efforts of all participants of the fire-fighting process; and provides them with the necessary fire-fighting equipment. Likewise, Emergency Ministry Aviation forces are officially said to be the most important forces involved in putting out forest and peat fires.

The real state of affairs differs considerably from the official line. According to current legislation, responsibility for fighting forest fires — at least until they begin to threaten inhabited settlements — is assumed by forest management bodies and other forestry organizations. As such, these bodies put out the vast majority of forest fires. The problem, as we have already mentioned, is that the number of employees in such organizations has been cut four-fold since 2006 (the direct result of reforms). In other words, there are simply not enough people to put out such a huge number of fires. The situation is worsened by the fact that employees of forest management bodies are swamped with preparing excessive paperwork on industry reports, forms and certificates for all kinds of checks. In Spring, for example, this work occupied around three quarters of their working hours. Since the beginning of the fire season, the number of checks and enquiries for forms and reports has significantly increased.

In reality, it is the employees of the forestry industry who organize and carry out the bulk of the work in extinguishing forest fires. This is the even after large additional forces from the Emergency Ministry and the army are taken into account. The Federal Forest Agency has not been forthcoming providing information for national media outlets (partly because of the usual laziness, partly because of the poor media skills of managers). The employees of the forestry industry themselves simply have no time to talk to the media – they are fully occupied with fire-fighting, often working from dawn to dusk without taking breaks on weekends or holidays.

The lack of forestry professionals, the lack of organizational control of the Emergency Ministry, and the tardiness of their response means that fires are often only put out thanks to the efforts of volunteers from the local population and public organizations. Meanwhile there are still many dangerous fires raging not in forests, but in abandoned peat fields and pits, often in reserve lands (i.e. without an owner). In these cases, there is no one at all responsible for putting out fires at early stages.

 

About the author

Alexei Yaroshenko is head of the Greenpeace Russia forest program