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Fears Mount That Russia Could Face Another Summer Of Deadly Forest Fires

  • Tom Balmforth

Dry grass, brush, and trees burn on the bank of the Yenisei River in Russia's Taiga district, near Krasnoyarsk, in late April, when some were already warning of the acute risk of fires.

Dry grass, brush, and trees burn on the bank of the Yenisei River in Russia's Taiga district, near Krasnoyarsk, in late April, when some were already warning of the acute risk of fires.

MOSCOW -- As raging wildfires continue in Russia's Far East, fears are mounting that the country could face out-of-control blazes for the second summer in a row.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said at one point last week that 421 peat and forest fires had burst out in a 24-hour period in Siberia and in the Urals region, covering an area of 1,160 square kilometers.

The fires were already covering an area twice what they were at this time last year, when a record-breaking heat wave and drought led to the blazes spreading to vast swaths of Russian territory, killing dozens and destroying one-quarter of the country's crops.

But environmentalists warned that authorities were repeating the mistakes of a year ago by failing to address the problem early.

"Unfortunately, this year is repeating last year's story," says Grigory Kuksin, head of Greenpeace Russia's firefighting program. "Instead of putting out the fires, the government is trying to hide them and pretend they're not there. Unfortunately, this will have very sad consequences."

By May 28, authorities reported that 62 deaths had been blamed on wildfires and more than 3,000 homes had been destroyed.

One of the biggest mistakes the authorities have made, critics said, was the passage of a new law that makes it more difficult for volunteer firefighters to help combat the blazes.

Collective Effort

During last summer's fires, tens of thousands of volunteers organized themselves into brigades using online forums, through which they would pool resources, exchange information, gather contributions, and decide where to concentrate firefighting efforts.

According to the law, volunteer brigades must now be licensed, officially registered, and employ support staff including accountants to deal with tax forms. President Dmitry Medvedev signed the law on May 6.

Firefighters work at the scene of a fire in St. Petersburg in April.

Sergei Gruzd, head of the All-Russia Society for Volunteer Firefighting, says the legislation's provisions would be "extremely difficult to meet" for what were essentially small groups of villagers.

"It's enough to point out that, in order to create a voluntary fire brigade in the simplest of villages where not that many people live, their brigade must become a legally recognized entity," Gruzd says.

"It requires them to register with the tax services, hire a paid manager, an accountant to do the tax forms, and hire a driver for the firefighting machines. They need to have these three hired professionals even in the smallest, simplest village."

Kuksin agrees, saying that the new law created a "very serious administrative barrier" for volunteers.

Out Of Sight

He adds that the new law could have a particularly serious impact on almost 27 million people who cannot count on timely firefighting assistance from the state because they live in remote and isolated parts of the country.

"What it actually does it block the creation of voluntary fire brigades where it is needed above -- in the small villages," Kuksin says.

Nevertheless, in a meeting with Igor Borisov, president of Russia's Sakha Republic (formerly Yakutia), one of the regions most affected by this year's fires, President Medvedev stressed that volunteers would play a key role in combating the fires.

By May 25, 236 fires had been extinguished by more than 6,000 emergency firefighters backed by more than 60 aircraft, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry website.

Around 150 more had been extinguished in the 24 hours before another announcement by the same ministry on May 28, with another 118 still raging.

In last year's fires, 61 people were killed, 3,200 house were burned down, and overall damage was estimated at 12 billion rubles ($422 million). Moscow was also shrouded in acrid smoke for several weeks in August. Statistics later revealed that the mortality rate had doubled in the city.

The fires currently remain far from western Russia, where grain crops are concentrated.

with additional contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at