Comment: Russia’s 2010 fire catastrophes could be repeated – what can be done?

Alexei Vitvitsky

Publish date: August 19, 2010

Written by: Boris Vishnevsky

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – The forest fires of 2010 became a genuine catastrophe for Russia. By the most modest of estimates – for which is there is reason to assume that official information offered by the country’s Emergency Service Ministry was a severe underestimation – more than 50 people died.

More than 1200 homes were destroyed, 127 populated areas were either fully or partially razed by the flames, the areas of the fires at the beginning of August reached 1,235 acres, and economic damages are calculated to be 6.5 billion roubles ($3.3 million), this latter figure according to Russia’s Ministry of Regional Development.  

Seven areas – the Vladimir Region, the Voronezh Region, the Moscow Region, the Nizhny Novgorod Region and the Ryazn Region, plus the Republics of Morovia and Mariya El – declared states of emergency. What is to be done?

Classified fires?

With the coming of the long awaited cooling the area of natural fires has reduced by 123 to 148 acres. But in many areas the situation remains dangerous. And what is more dangerous is that the authorities are cloaking information about fires in forests that are radioactively contaminated after the Chernobyl disaster, namely the Bryansk region of Russia close to the Russia-Ukraine border.

Roslesochashchita, Russia’s forestry Agency on August 13 closed its website, on which there was a map of fires in radioactively contaminated areas. This occurred immediately after the emergency services minister, Sergei Shoigu,  inquired forestry service at an internal meeting who was spreading information about radiation fires. That the forestry service took down its map can hardly be construed as coincidence.

Why hide information that in accord with the constitution cannot be classified or be deemed “for agency use” because it concerns the environment? Ecologists say the answer is simple: the authorities are afraid of taking responsibility for inaction and the actual destruction of the forestry system, which is the most important reason for such a grim development of events. 

Fires are attributable to human error

Massive fires began in Russia during July after an unprecedented and long period of heat and drought. Of course, one reason for the fires that is not associated with the authorities is that anomalous fire led to the desiccation of vegetation, the result of which was that any forest fire could emerge from the smallest source of flame, and burn to a destructive surface fire that entirely encompasses trees and moves at some 30 kilometres an hour. But this reason is far from the only one.

The second reason is the mass-scale drying-out of bogs, which even in the 1920s was conducted in the country for the acquisition of peat as a more accessible heating fuel compared to oil, gas and coal. After the majority of peat enterprises collapsed, peat development was abandoned and turned out to be extremely flammable.

Extinguishing  peat fires by traditional means is impossible – pouring water on them is pointless. Dry peat becomes moisture resistant, which causes difficulties in extinguishing peat fires: water during fire extinguishing seeps past the peat into the depths. Men and fire fighting equipment can fall into deep pores in burned peat bogs. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin urgently supported a Federal Target Programme for the inundation of peat bogs around Moscow, which will cost the federal budget some 4.5 billion roubles. But a simple and cheap method of extinguishing forest and bog fires developed by Vladimir Sretensky, a Perm-based scholar, was passed over by the emergency services ministry. Apparently, it is more profitable to demand more and more new billions on the heroic battle against the fires, inflate personnel, and buy more and more expensive foreign cars for management.

Finally, the third reason: the above mentioned collapse of the forestry system, the weak response of the State forestry defences, is actually due to the dereliction of huge portions of the forest.

The forest remained without defence

In 2000, the State Committee for Environmental Protection was liquidated and transformed into the Federal Forestry Service. In 2004, 40,000 forest rangers were relieve of their right to draw up a protocol on illegal woodcutting and other violations, and in 2006, a new Forestry Code that decisively destroyed forestry management and the entire state apparatus for forest protection was adopted.  

Before 2007, the state forestry protection department, consisting of about 70,000 forestry rangers, and about 130,000 forestry management workers, was responsible for forestry fire safety. The workers would routinely patrol forest territories and either swiftly extinguish or contain fires from populated areas.

With the adoption in 2006 of the new forestry code, which came into power in 2007, the state forestry protection department was eliminated, and its functions redistributed among regional authorities and private tenants. Now, Russia’s forests are preserved against fire by some 12,000 people, but they are not specifically forest rangers, but rather bureaucrats that are in the paper-making business. The obligation for defending the forests was passed in main to owners and lessees who, by way of understatement aren’t  always able to or have a desire to preserve the forest.

The requirement for a state environmental impact study of engineering documents for any given forestry use project has been cancelled, as have requirements for public hearings on such topics. The new forest code significantly simplifies getting rights to lumbering, building and development, laying wire for various kinds of communication, and the creation of recreational infrastructure – first of all in the green zones of populated areas. And it is entirely logical that the new forestry code created a complete bacchanalia in forest husbandry, a sharp spike I the number of illegal clear cuttings, and a worsening of the fire safe condition in tree felling areas. A thinning of water defence and forest defence roads began in the interest of bigger profits and commercial building. Forestry restoration became miserly, as did budget funds earmarked for it.

The consequences still lie ahead

The majority of the fires have been put out, but according to the emergency services ministry and ecologists many continue to burn in the Moscow, Vladimir, Ivanov and Nizhny Novgorod Regions, as well as the Republics of Maria El and  Chuvashiya. It is also apparent that those fires that have been extinguished were put out with the help of cooler weather and rain, and that the situation with bog fires will remain tense for some time to come. The rain, which is expected to be light or heavy, is not enough to put out fires in the deep dried-out smouldering peat bogs. And if the end of August brings dry and not too chilly weather, the peat will continue to burn at least until October.

As concerns the ecological consequences of the fire, these will be felt for a long time. The concentrations of carbon dioxide in Moscow during the summer days exceeded the allowable norms by 3.6 times, the content of suspended wood shreddings by 2.8 times, and specific hydrocarbons by 1.5 times. The most dangerous item for human health are the suspended shreddings and particles from the fires measuring about 10 microns, which can remain in human organism, influencing health and life expectancy for the worse.

According to Andrei Sletsovsky, hear of the Moscow Department of Health, the mortality rate in Moscow on August 9, 2010 reached 700 people a day, compared to an ordinary day when the mortality rate is between 360 to 380 people. Calls for ambulances rose to 10,000 per day – compared to an average 7,500 to 8,000 a day. The rate of hospitalization rose by 10 percent, and the hospitalization of children rose 17 percent. The primary reason for this rise was cardio-vascular problems. In its turn, the ecological studies laboratory the Scientific-Research Institute of labour medicine and Ecology in the far eastern Siberian city of Chita reported that during the period of the summer fires that those seeking emergency medical care rose by three to four times and that mortality increased by 10 to 13 times.

Because fires, especially ones that burn for a long time, significantly change the air content, they carry significant harm for people’s health, specifically for respiratory organs and blood circulation.

In 2010, the American Heart Association (AHA) published a scientific statement saying that there is a connection between air pollution containing small particles of 2.5 microns or smaller, and cardio-vascular illnesses. In conclusion, the statement underscored that there is a weak but defined connection between short lived air pollution – meaning microscopic particles, or smoke – and premature death: that is to say there is serious proof of a connection between air pollution and the development of ischemic illnesses of the heart. Put otherwise, there is small but strengthening proof of a connection between air pollution and  paralysis of the heart, as well as stroke. The principle sources of these particles that pollute the air, according to the AHA, are emissions from the burning of fossil fuels by industry, transport, the burning of biomass, food preparation on fires, and, of course, forest fires. 

What is to be done?

Bellona experts consider that in order to change the situation and prevent the repetition of further such catastrophes as this summer’s fires, Russia must create an efficacious state forestry protection department whose single purpose would be to protect the forest. The federal budget must spend a significant amount on forestry protection, otherwise the financial losses cause by fires will and unlawful tree felling will be significantly more expensive.

The Bellona specialists further suggest that it is necessary to establish a single system of aviation protection of forests and peat bogs from large fire – something analogous to Russia’s old federal “Avialesokhrana” or Aviation Forest Guard – as well as the guarantee of swift transport of qualified personnel and technology from areas of minor to major fires. Without this, in some hot dry year in the future, the catastrophe of 2010 will be repeated.