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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

As Agencies Argue, Volunteers Swat Out Fires

MTVolunteer firefighters swatting a dry grass blaze with rags in the Moscow region on a recent night. Spring wildfires are keeping volunteers on their toes.
KOSTENEVO, Moscow Region -- When the Emergency Situations Ministry declared last week that there were no active wildfires in the greater Moscow region, volunteer firefighters in the village of Kostenevo were surprised. They had been trying to extinguish a smoldering peat bog for four days in a row.

As wildfires rage across Russia every spring, federal agencies argue over who is responsible for extinguishing them and preventing them from happening, while environmentalists say changes to fire safety rules have only made matters worse.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu complained last week that the Agriculture Ministry's Federal Forestry Agency was persisting on using his people to fight wildfires. In almost the same breath, he ordered his personnel to "immediately begin working on peat bog fires," Interfax reported.

"There will be talk again that peat bogs are burning and the Emergency Situations Ministry is at fault," Shoigu said at a ministry meeting May 5. "If we miss them, we'll be fussing over them until winter."


Maria Antonova / MT
Volunteer Anna Andreyeva hanging fire hoses to dry on the roof of the firefighters' house in Kostenevo village.


But it is mostly volunteer firefighters who fuss over wildfires in the Moscow region's Taldom district, which includes Kostenevo. Volunteers had already been working on extinguishing a local peat bog for four days when both the forest agency and the Emergency Situations Ministry reported on May 8 that there were no active wildfires in the region.

Eager to extinguish the fire while telling Moscow that things were under control, the local fire department sent five firefighters to help the volunteers extinguish the peat bog. Part of the problem, however, is that professional firefighters are only trained to work in cities.

"He looks like he is watering a flower bed," smirked Anna Andreyeva, a local journalist who has volunteered as a firefighter for several years, as she observed one of the district firefighters direct a stream of water upward in a 3-meter-high fountain.

"They think they have finished working on this section, so now we have to inspect it and finish what they missed," sighed Oleg, head of the six-person volunteer squad working on the peat bog during the Victory Day holiday last Saturday.

"Since it's Victory Day, all they want is to go home at 5," he added.


Maria Antonova / MT
Pumps and hoses crowding the volunteer firefighters' garage in Kostenevo.
Left unattended, peat bog fires can go as deep as 15 meters underground, making them virtually impossible to extinguish. A neglected peat bog fire in 2002 eventually covered about 300 hectares, spreading to forests, filling Moscow with dense haze and leading several districts to declare a state of emergency. In the Taldom district, several villages burned to the ground, while roads sank into the fiery recesses of burning peat, taking heavy trucks with them, recalled Grigory Kuksin, who was an officer in the local branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry at the time.

Kuksin now coordinates the volunteer firefighting program, which is based in Kostenevo. The crew's base is a house where the garage is filled with firefighting equipment such as pumps, hoses, buckets and rags, which the volunteers use to stamp out dry grass fires.

District firefighters are not trained to extinguish fires in fields or peat bogs, Kuksin said as he filled a smoldering section of peat ground with water. Most of them think that peat bog fires will just die out on their own, Kuksin said. Moreover, nobody is responsible for monitoring and preventing fires in open areas like peat bogs, he said.

"I guess we missed a couple of spots," one firefighter said when asked why the ground was smoldering again in an area that his group had drenched during several hours of work.

"It's already 4, and we've been stuck here since morning without any food," he complained.


Maria Antonova / MT
Grigory Kuksin
After 7 p.m., the firefighters cracked open a case of beer and watched as the volunteers looked for more smoking spots, drenched them with water and mixed the resulting mud with shovels to prevent the fire from igniting again. The tedious process was not finished until 10 p.m., but then Kuksin received a call on his cell phone about a burning grass field in another village. When the volunteers returned to the base, it was already past 11 p.m.

Since the start of the fire season last month, Kostenevo's volunteer firefighters have extinguished more than 40 fires in the Taldom district. Many of them were started by locals who believe that grass grows better on burned ground; others spread when farmers cleared their fields by setting them on fire.

Although fires on dry fields can quickly spread to villages, peat bogs and forests, they were essentially legalized in 2007 when the Federal Agency for Forest Use amended fire safety rules to allow grass to be burned under "supervised" conditions.

"Essentially, a farmer can set a field on fire and just watch as the flames reach the forest," said Greenpeace environmentalist Mikhail Kreindlin, who has been involved in the volunteer firefighting program for many years. "Only then does the fire become the local forestry department's responsibility."

The Federal Agency for Forest Use defended the fire safety rules. "Controlled burning can be good," agency official Alexei Yermolenko told The Moscow Times. "Grass grows better, and some species of trees like sequoia only release their seeds in high heat."


Igor Tabakov / MT
Smoke cloaking Moscow in 2002 after a peat bog fire was left unchecked.
He conceded, however, that many wildfires resulted from farmers who let field fires burn out of control. "We are working on that," he said.

His agency estimated that 2.6 million hectares of forest burned in Russia in 2008, completely destroying 300,000 hectares and resulting in financial losses of 18 billion rubles ($561 million).

Since the beginning of the fire season this year, there has been a total of 10,358 wildfires over 484,554 hectares in Russia, the Emergency Situations Ministry said Thursday. Most fires were in Siberia and the Far East.

Environmentalists said official statistics greatly underestimate the scope of wildfires. "Satellite monitoring indicates that there are 10 times more forest fires in Russia than officially reported," Kreindlin said.

Fifty wildfires were identified and extinguished in the Moscow region over the May 1-3 holiday, Yermolenko said Friday, adding that the situation was under control. The region has received about 480 million rubles over the past three years for equipment and air patrols, he said.

But increased financing without reforms will not make firefighting efforts more successful, Kuksin said. In fact, pumping more money into airplanes and heavy equipment will make it even less efficient, he said. "Heavy trucks can't maneuver in the wild, and planes dumping tons of water usually miss the target, destroying village houses instead," he said.

Most fires can be extinguished with simple rags when they start, volunteers said. That is exactly how the firefighting program began in Kostenevo in 2000, when environmentalists were doing research in a nearby nature reserve. The regional reserve, created in the late 1970s, spans over 15,000 hectares and is home to Europe's largest gathering of cranes before they depart for warmer climes in the fall. After extinguishing a grass fire with their jackets in 2000, the reserve's nature inspectors and ornithologists decided to take fire safety at the protected area into their own hands.

The firefighting equipment kept in the shack in Kostenevo was bought with funds from the district administration, money donated by the occasional sponsor and personal contributions.

"Prevention costs little, but there are no zealots looking over the district other than us," Kuksin said. "We put out more fires than the fire department, and we hardly have any money."