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Unified system of fighting forest fires has not been created in Russia to this day

June 08, 2012, 15:07 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The tragic death of a group of paratrooper firefighters, who were dealing with a forest blaze in the Republic of Tyva in the south of East Siberia this week, has again drawn the attention of the Russian public to the problem of the fire-fighting service in general. After the disastrous effects of the forest and peat fires in the summer of 2010 a great deal was said about the need for creating a unified system of fire fighting and prevention instead of its dismantled Soviet-era predecessor, but nothing has been done along these lines to this day, experts say.

Eight paratrooper firefighters perished on Wednesday, while struggling with a forest fire that affected an area of 500 hectares in the Bai-Taigin district of the Tyva Republic. All were well-trained specialists, with professional skills and previous experience. The Republic of Tyva declared a day of mourning. The affair has evoked nation-wide response.

The beginning of the summer in Russia, in particular, in Siberia and the Far East, saw large-scale fires, which have been spreading in some regions of the country in a geometrical progression. According to the forestries agency Leskhoz, at present there are no less than 120 forest fires. In Siberia, the total area of burning forests keeps growing. Whereas on June 5 it was about 2,000 hectares, two days later it was already as large as 7,000 hectares. The Verkhkne-Tazovsky wildlife preserve in the Urals is on fire.

Over the past ten days 161 forest fires totaling 14,100 hectares in area have been registered in the Far Eastern Federal District. The most unfavorable wildlife fire situation is in the Khabarovsk Territory, where the affected area has grown 1.9 times over the past ten days.

The problem is Russia has not yet re-created a centralized system of fighting forest fires, although the need for it was particularly evident after the disastrous heat wave that hit Russia in the summer of 2010. De jure, the Emergency Situations Ministry is not responsible for regional fires, and it is asked to help deal with blazes of natural origin only in exceptional cases. This is the regional executive authorities’ realm of responsibility. Maintaining fire safety in the territory of wildlife preserves, where emergencies happen regularly, is a competence of the Natural Resources Ministry. The Emergency Situations Ministry just monitors fire safety and carries out the function of coordination and control.

In the country there are six institutes conducting research into the problems of wildlife fire prevention and elimination, but none of them cooperates with the Emergency Situations Ministry. Their findings are in little or no demand from the agencies responsible for fire safety work.

“We lack a smoothly operating system of fighting forest fires and close cooperation among the fire fighting resources of different industries and agencies under the Emergency Situations Ministry,” the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes a member of the Public Chamber, Alexander Kanshin, as saying. He said that voluntary fire-fighting brigades were being poorly used for fire prevention work, and employing fire-fighting aircraft is a great problem.

As the forest forum Greenpeace Russia has said, the forest reforms of the past twelve years, starting from the elimination of the federal forestry service and the state committee for ecology in May 2000, have ruined the system of fighting forest fires. “The introduction of a new Forest Code in 2007 accelerated the destructive processes in the forest sector, and that was the root cause of the fire disasters in the forests of densely populated regions of Russia in the summer of 2010.”

After that disaster, ecologists say, the country’s leadership tried to do something to improve the situation in the sphere of forests’ protection from fires, “but it they have not dared to make fundamental changes out of the fear of recognizing its own mistakes.” The fire-risky season of 2011 confirmed that the country is still unprepared for fundamental struggle against forest fires. Fortunately, the worst fire risks in 2011 were in the relatively sparsely populated regions of European Russia’s North, Siberia and the Far East, so great casualties and damage was avoided.

At the beginning of 2012 practically the whole range of causes of the country’s poor preparedness to fight forest fires (which had allowed for the catastrophic spread of fires in 2010 and 2011) was still there, ecologists say. “These reasons are well-known – the destruction of the forestry industry’s economic basis following the adoption of the 2006 version of the Forest Code, absence of an effective forest protection service, careless attitude to forests, an ocean of paper work, window dressing practices in the system of government forest management, and official personnel policies geared to replacing true professionals with pseudo-managers convenient for superiors.

Also, the beginning of 2012 saw the emergence of some unique factors for the country’s worse readiness to resist forest fires than in 2010-2011 and for the still greater risks of catastrophic developments. Among them one should mention the reduction in the federal budget financing of the forestries in contrast to that in 2011 by a quarter and the mandatory licensing of fire fighting activities. Licensing will greatly narrow the range of organizations and individuals with the legal right to deal with forest fires - according to some estimates, by 60-75 percent, ecologists warn.

MOSCOW, June 8