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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Volga Sun Puts Heat on Firemen




VOLGOGRAD, Southern Russia -- Two rubber-clad men scrambled up the ladder to confront the flames licking the side of a nine-story apartment building. Hose in hand, they yelled down to their comrades below to "Let it flow!"


A stream of water burst forth. Spray hissed and hid the men from the view of the spectators below. Ten minutes later, the fire was out, and the residents were left to pick through their water-logged belongings.


It's another day at work for the 2nd Brigade of Volgograd's municipal fire department. In a 24-hour shift, they will be called out up to 30 times. When the alarm sounds, they have one minute to abandon their card playing and sexy videos kept in the back room, slide into their slickers and board the red trucks.


The routine is like many others at fire departments across Russia. But here there is a difference. Because of the high incidence of fires in and around Volgograd, firefighters are hand-picked from thousands of applicants and are paid a monthly salary of about 1,000 rubles [$150] -- higher than firefighters anywhere else in the region.


"We are the best of the best," said Oleg Kornilov, 33. "And we have to defend one of the riskier areas in the country."


Volgograd is perched on the banks of the Volga River in Russia's southern black earth region. All it takes in summer's blazing heat is a beer bottle thrown on the side of the road and a steady stream of sunlight focused through the thick glass to cause a blaze. This summer, with its low rainfall, has already seen some of the worst forest fires in the area in decades.


That, mixed with the city's decrepit electrical system, is a recipe for disaster, the firefighters said. In the past five years, the number of fires has increased by about one-third, as faulty wiring and unsafe living conditions compound the likelihood of conflagrations breaking out. Short circuits cause at least 80 percent of the fires in the city, said fireman Valery Volodyev.


"I once had to pull a 2-year-old girl from a blazing apartment," said a bulky and balding Volodyev, 39. "Her mother had left her and her older sister alone watching TV, and the fuse blew. I found the little girl lying unconscious, poisoned by the fumes."


Both in the city and in the forests the department is sorely short of men. In Soviet times, the force relied on volunteers to make up at least half their numbers, bringing up the tail of their assault with shovels and heavy blankets to pound out flames after the hoses had done much of the work. Today, though, no one is prepared to work for free, said the deputy head of the region's fire department, Gennady Frolov.


The 2nd Brigade is just relieved to have been left out of the battle against a forest fire 150 kilometers north of Volgograd, where the summer heat and a pensioner's backyard bonfire led to a fire engulfing 60,000 square kilometers of forest. Someone had to remain in the city, the fighters explained.


With this year's drought,12,500 fires so far have ravaged 670,000 hectares of forest in Siberia and Southern Russia, compared with last year's 700,000 hectares of burnt forest for the entire year, Interfax reported.


But what firefighters fear much more than forest fires and apartment blazes are the potential infernos in dilapidated chemical and military factories that dot the city outskirts.


Last year Alexander Prokopechkin, 34, and his team were called to a fire in a military ammunition warehouse. But by the time they got there the rockets stored in the warehouse had ignited and were flying overhead above the highway to land and explode in nearby wheat fields.


"It was the most scared I've ever been," Prokopechkin said. "The men and I cowered on the side of the road in the grass, watching the fireworks show above. The commander saw it was hopeless, and so for two hours we waited for the rockets to blow and the fire to die its own death."