Carelessness Fuels Rising Number of Fire Deaths

APFirefighters relaxing after putting out a fire in a Moscow apartment on Aug. 1. An average of 50 people die daily in Russia from fire.
At a training center of the Russian fire service, intricate homemade models depict some of the worst emergencies a firefighter could face: an inferno raging at a soccer stadium, a blaze spreading through the aisles of a crowded theater, even a nuclear mushroom cloud hovering ominously over residential high-rises.

Such dramatic scenes are rare in everyday life. Russia's real fire emergency is far more insidious and goes largely unnoticed.

Fifty people a day -- 18,000 a year -- die in fires caused mostly by people smoking while drinking or others who are just plain careless. That's 4 1/2 times the number of fire deaths in the United States, which has twice the population.

The contrast is even starker with the United Kingdom, which sees 600 fire deaths a year, or one per 100,000 people -- compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in Russia.

Experts say fire fatalities have skyrocketed since the end of the Soviet Union because of lower public vigilance, a disregard for safety standards and a dramatic rise in the number of homeless desperate to keep warm during icy winters. These factors -- and the country's many stove-heated, wooden houses in isolated villages -- have led to some of the world's grimmest fire statistics.

"It's mostly people in a drunk state with a cigarette butt," said Didivan Chichinadze, head of the training center and adjacent fire department in southern Moscow.

In summer, the culprit is often the upstairs neighbor, casually enjoying a cigarette on his balcony, Chichinadze said. When he finishes his smoke, he throws the still-lit butt down to the street below. It falls on another balcony, where the downstairs neighbor keeps extra furniture, paint and other flammable substances -- and they ignite instantly.

According to the Moscow fire department, 137 of the 226 fire deaths in the capital in the first half of 2002 were caused by smoking. Alcohol also seems to have played a role: 142 of the victims were drunk.

Increasingly, victims include elderly and disabled people, said Moscow fire chief Vladimir Rodin.

Meanwhile, the homeless, whose ranks have swelled in the past decade, start fires in abandoned buildings and the basements of apartment houses. "We conduct propaganda fairly actively," Rodin said, frustration creeping into his voice. "But these people don't read the papers or listen to the radio or watch TV."

In the countryside, where telephones are rare, one spark can ignite an inferno. "The stations are far apart, and those wooden houses are like candles," Chichinadze said.

Russia wasn't always a tinderbox. A few decades ago, it was a model of fire safety, said Sergei Lupanov, head of the statistics department at the State Fire Service's research center.

In 1965, there were one-tenth the fire fatalities of today. In that year, 2,500 people died in all of the Soviet Union, including about 1,800 in Russia, he said.

A vestige of the Soviet Union's heavy-handed fire safety campaigns sits atop a building across from the city zoo. "Muscovites, observe the rules of fire safety," the giant lettering reminds residents.

Few appear to be listening. In apartment buildings, hallways are frequently blocked with junk, and residents install illegal metal doors in front of staircases -- a tactic that might help keep out intruders but could also trap people fleeing a blaze.

Public spaces are not much safer: Theaters and concert halls often keep all but one door locked in an effort to conserve heat and control crowds.

Firefighters say fines for violations are too small to make people obey the law, and citizens complain that fire inspectors are more concerned with extorting bribes from small businesses than in really preventing fires.

Both problems are addressed in a new Administrative Code that took effect this month. The code raises some fines but also leaves it to the courts to impose them, Rodin said.

Officials insist that the fire service itself is not to blame for the soaring death rate. Average response time in Moscow has been falling in recent years and now stands at 6 1/2 minutes, Rodin said. More fire stations are being built, and firefighting remains a popular job for young people -- in part because it exempts them from army service.

Still, as with most government jobs, the salary is barely enough to live on. Rank-and-file firefighters in Moscow make about 2,000 rubles ($64) a month.

One veteran firefighter, insisting on anonymity, called the fire service "dirt poor." He said trucks break down all the time and there's no money for spare parts.

Lupanov of the research center says Russia could decrease the death rate by putting more resources toward public awareness and developing more stringent safety standards, as the United States did in the 1970s and '80s. But such an effort is likely a long way off.

"Fires have not yet become a state priority," Rodin said.