oDR: Feature

Climate change, war and forest fires in eastern Ukraine

Residents of the region of Luhansk, Ukraine are still recovering from unprecedented forest fires that shook the region last year

Tetiana Bezruk
14 July 2021, 12.00am
Muratove
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Image: Anastasia Vlasova

“After the fire burned down our home, we moved here, where no one’s lived for 30 years,” Olexandr Nilovko, a disabled former police officer, tells me as he lies in bed.

He’s referring to events last September in the area around Luhansk, Ukraine, when forest fires broke out in the war-torn region’s forest, and affected its small villages, including his home of Muratove. In total, the fires killed 17 people and left 600 homes in ruins.

“The smoke was blowing over our garden,” Nilovko continues. “Everyone watched it for two days. Then I remember hearing a crack, I turned my head and a tree was on fire outside my window.”

Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies are still investigating different scenarios of how the fires started, including arson, spontaneous combustion andshelling from the occupied territories, as well as human carelessness.

But behind the tragic statistics and investigation lie the lives of several hundred people living in Muratove. I went to find out how they are coping, and what ecologists think about what happened.

Life after the fires

When we arrive on Muratove’s Lisova Street, nature is starting to come back to life. The grass is turning green underfoot, small purple flowers make their way through last year’s foliage. The river, with water that’s barely ankle-deep, flows slowly through the village in an overgrown ditch.

There are around 160 people like Olexandr Nilovko in Muratove and the neighbouring village of Kapitanove who received compensation for the destruction of their homes.

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Olexandr Nilovko | Image: Anastasia Vlasova

“A total of 480 people live in these two villages, and those affected have received compensation both for financial loss and for injury,” says Oleg Kurilov, head of the village. Kurilov himself was born in Novoaydar, a larger town nearby. At the beginning of the war with Russia in 2014 he went to the front as a volunteer, then he served in the armed forces of Ukraine for two years. We meet Kurilov outside the local store, as he’s mixing concrete and mending a fence.

“There are around 40 people in Muratove and Kapitanove whose houses burned down. But some of those houses were in the names of relatives who don’t live here, and others had inherited their house. So there were problems with processing their payments,” he explains.

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Oleg Kurilov | Image: Anastasia Vlasova

We went with Kurilov to visit the burned-down house of Olexandr Nilovko, on Lugova Street. But our attempts to find it were in vain. It’s a long street, and only small grey piles of ash, slate and bricks remain. In some places, you can see the green walls of a garage destroyed by a fire, or where someone had left crockery out in the yard.

Nearby, we notice a man guarding a small fire of dry grass. This is 84-year-old Grygory Ilyich. He moved to the village in 1991 from Stakhanov, and used to work as a miner, which caused problems with his lungs. He says that there had been no rain in the village for about two months before the fires, and that the fire “jumped” over the top of the nearby pine forest. Grygory Ilyich lost a fence, garden hoses and a motor in the fire, but has refused to accept any help.

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Grygory Ilyich | Image: Anastasia Vlasova

State investigations

Roman Vlasenko, head of the regional state administration in the nearby city of Severodonetsk, confirmed Oleg Kurilov’s assertion that many victims of the fires have had problems with receiving compensation for their property due to faulty documentation. We meet him in the city centre, on the square near the town’s administration building. Vlasenko says that after the fires were officially declared an emergency, the Ukrainian state allocated money from the budget: everyone who suffered loss was to receive 300,000 hryvnia (£7,900) in compensation.

“People didn’t have any documents. It’s not that these documents were burnt, but people simply hadn’t re-registered either their land or house,” Vlasenko remarks. “Money was available, but the amounts paid out weren’t very high due to the lack of documents. But those who did have documents received compensation, of course.”

Vlasenko says he can only guess about the causes of the fire. He reports that he had never seen such large-scale fires and suggests that they were provocations. But who did it –accidentally or intentionally – remains a question for Ukrainian law enforcement.

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Roman Vlasenko | Image: Anastasia Vlasova

In November 2020, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation conducted a search of the State Emergency Situations Service, acting on allegations regarding the systematic theft of fuel by service officials, which resulted in firefighters lacking sufficient fuel supplies to reach the fires in time. No further information on this investigation has been released.

A month after the fires, the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, set up a special temporary commission to investigate their causes. In July 2021, the commission released its report, which included a recommendation to allocate funds to an emergency warning system in Luhansk.

The report also recommended that Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office inspect the criminal investigations that were carried out into the fires, and allegations that law enforcement chiefs had tried to passresponsibility for them to lower-ranked officers. Finally, it called for the regional leadership, namely the Luhansk governor, Serhiy Haidai, and Severodonetsk mayor, Oleksandr Striuk, to be fired over the affair.

The commission did not publish any conclusion on the causes of the fires.

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Muratove | Image: Anastasia Vlasova

Sandstorms, fires and climate change

Sadly, the 2020 Luhansk forest fires aren’t a unique event in Ukraine.

The head of the Regional Eastern European Fire Monitoring Center, Professor Sergii Zibtsev, says that the Luhansk forests were planted in the 1950s.

“I worked in the region between 1987 and 1989, studying the influence of the power plant at Schastya on the productivity and growth of pine forests. After these fires, we were invited to develop recommendations for reforestation,” he explains.

“Since January we have been driving around, inspecting, photographing, making a map and developing a strategy. The sand there needs to be fixed, as it can cause sandstorms. We talked with the foresters and they reported that people back then, in the 1950s, said that there was a high risk of fires. The forest practically surrounds the villages, and the distance from the houses to the forest is just 200 metres.”

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Image: Anastasia Vlasova

Zibtsev believes that reforestation will take 15 to 30 years, given the weather and climate change, but he asserts that pine trees in the immediate vicinity of villages are dangerous.

“This fire showed that villages are very vulnerable. Climate change has already arrived. It used to be in the pages of textbooks and the Nobel Prize awards, but now it’s in Ukraine.

“Currently pine forests protect [the villages] from sandstorms, but if you compare the sandstorms that occur twice a year, with a fire that took so many lives and injured so many, then the fire is probably worse than sandstorms.”

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Image: Anastasia Vlasova

Nina Mashkovska used to live in Muratove. She describes how residents were trapped during the fire. On the day the fires started, Mashkovska had bought paint for her house and fence. She remembers that there was a strong wind. She lived on the same street as Оlexandr Nilovko and when she saw the fire, she ran to him to call the firefighters.

“Sasha is bedridden, but he always knows all the phone numbers. There used to be firefighters with a vehicle in the village, but then the state thought it cost too much. The fire was blowing from the left side, and there the vegetable gardens were overgrown, and we were already trapped. We couldn’t get out. We grabbed our bags and we were pushed into a fire engine, taken to a store, and then waited for a bus.”

After the fire, Nina Mashkovska moved to a small town near Kyiv, but she often wonders how her neighbours are now: “Many fellow villagers stayed in Muratove. They say that no one is building. They don’tt restore their own homes because they’reafraid; they don’t know what will happen next.”

On her phone, Mashkovskaya stores videos she filmed in her village: a house, flowers in her garden. She says that she is probably the only one who has left the village so far: “They told me, ‘how can you move in your old age?’ But we didn't think to stay, we don’t own our own home in the village. Plus, we don’t see the war ending any time soon.”

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The forest surrounding Muratove | Image: Anastasia Vlasova
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