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Russia: Fires In Far East Leave Ecological, Financial Problems

Khabarovsk, 22 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two hundred kilometers down the Amur River, the land around the Russian village of Dubovy Mys is black and smoking, and spot fires still smolder in the taiga.

Rain and snowfall last week and Monday slowed the five-month advance of fires across vast stretches of the Far East's coniferous forestland. But the blazes were so extensive that the United Nations has labeled them a world ecological disaster with potential climatic consequences for the northern hemisphere. Officials are still weighing the economic cost to the Khabarovsk region and Sakhalin Island along Russia's Pacific coast.

Since May, fires swept across 2 million hectares of remote Khabarovsk taiga, pumping an estimated 30 million tons of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere.

On Sakhalin, where fires killed three islanders and left 700 others homeless, a vast stretch of the island's surface has been destroyed by fire in the last five months.

In the Khabarovsk region, fires destroyed 110-120 million cubic meters of timber and dealt a blow to the hard currency-generating timber economy. Kazbek Khetagurov, head of the regional administration's Timber Industry Committee, said the fires forced logging companies to spend their summers fighting fires instead of cutting timber to sell abroad.

Because forestry companies have purchased 50-year leases to the land, they were defending their property against fire. The federal government has promised to reimburse the companies for their work. But Khetagurov said that in a country where the government already can't pay its bills, payment seems unlikely.

Dmitry Yefremov, director of the Far Eastern Scientific Forestry Research Institute, added that 30 percent of the burnt forests will never grow back. He said that instead the land will likely become marshland and steppe.

Until last Wednesday, when the rains began, Khabarovsk was periodically so enveloped in smoke, airplanes couldn't land, boats couldn't navigate the Amur River and cars drove with their headlights on during the day. The blanket of smoke hindered firefighters from attacking the blazes in the Khabarovsk region and on Sakhalin.

Yefremov said "there was a small 'nuclear winter' on a vast territory up to Yakutia this year, which also affected the ability of trees to process carbon dioxide, because they can only do it under sunlight."

On a wider scale, Yefremov said, the smoke pumped out by millions of cubic meters of burning spruce and cedar could contribute to global warming. And there could be local changes -- "climatic imbalances" such as a lack of rainfall in a region that normally receives high summer precipitation.

While Khabarovsk's taiga was hard hit, the fires didn't burn any villages, unlike those on Sakhalin. But the fires will seriously hurt the villages where Khabarovsk's indigenous peoples live.

Yury Donkan, a Nanai and head of the local administration said that in the Ulchsky region, where 77 percent of the population is indigenous, most of the land used for hunting has been destroyed. This happened as wage nonpayment forced many of the area's Ulchi, Nanai, Nivkhi, Udegue and other indigenous peoples to return to hunting, fishing and trapping. Donkan called the fires "an awful tragedy" adding that "70 percent of hunting territory burned." He said local peoples are also concerned that the fires will reduce the number of fish in rivers next year, and added that fish is the main source of food for many.

The northern range of the rare Siberian tiger's habitat was destroyed, and this further limits the great cat's ability to breed at a time when fewer than 450 are believed to exist in the wild, no more than 100 of them in the Khabarovsk region as a whole. Untold numbers of other wildlife - including boar, bear, moose and elk - simply burned to death.

The fires were worsened because of the inability of Russia to respond amid an economic crisis. There wasn't enough modern equipment to fight the fires, and the federal government was slow to react.

Larisa Vyachayeva, chief of the regional administration's licensing department, which sold timber permits for the now-burnt land, said the destruction had been so vast that it is "not a tragedy (only) for the Khabarovsk region or the Far East, but for the world."

(Working reports for RFE/RL from the Russian Far East. Nonna Chernyakova contributed to the report.)