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Up in Flames

While Bureaucracy Puts Numerous Hurdles in the Way of Volunteer Fire Brigades, Experts Worry That Wildfires Will Rage Again This Year Forest fires being extinguished in Voronezh Region By Pavel Koshkin Russia Profile 06/27/2011

A fire prevention drill organized by Greenpeace last weekend in the Meshera National Park in the Vladimir Region testifies to the Russians’ awareness of a possible repeat of last year’s wildfire scenario. Volunteer firefighters got the chance to put their skills in practice after being trained during the winter and spring. They have been regularly putting out wildfires in Meshera since the middle of June. But while Greenpeace activists describe the current situation with wildfires as significantly worse than last year, the Emergency Ministry claims that everything is under control thanks to timely monitoring measures and a new law on voluntary fire prevention.

Despite rainy weather during most of June, Russians are expecting a hot summer this year, spurring worries about the high likelihood of new wildfires. A poll conducted by the Levada Center found that 63 percent of Russians are seriously troubled by the prospect of wildfires that might affect the country again this year and 25 percent don’t rule out this possibility.

Grigory Kuksin, a Greenpeace officer who is in charge of the organization’s fire prevention project, thinks the situation is very precarious. “It’s much worse than it was last year,” he said. He also believes that the problem is that wildfires are affecting Russia’s distant regions, beyond the Urals in Siberia. “The Sverdlovsk Region, Yakutia (the Sakha Republic), and the Irkutsk Region are unfortunately not the focus of the mass media because they are far away from Moscow,” Kuksin said. “The worst forecasts came true. The country wasn’t ready for the fire hazard last year, and it isn’t ready now.”

But the Russian authorities are convinced that the situation is under control. In an attempt to nip the problem in the bud, “we are taking all preventive measures,” said Elena Smirnykh, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry. “Our satellites are monitoring forests every day. Thanks to this, the number of fires is decreasing now, because we use new and effective technology to detect the fire and put it out shortly after it starts.”      

Currently, statistics from the ministry for this year account for 217 fires, with 98 wildfires detected and extinguished in the Moscow Region. Spring and summer of last year saw 257 fires for the same period of time. But Greenpeace doubts these figures. A lack of reliable statistics in Russia makes it difficult to determine the exact number of fires because the federal authorities and the local governments report different figures, the Greenpeace Web site reports. “There are a lot of wildfires in the Russian countryside, but information is sometimes covered up,” Kuksin said. “And the government does its utmost to misinform people about the current situation. The problem is that a quarter of the Russian population lives in rural areas where they can’t get timely help.”

In an attempt to combat wildfires in Russia’s distant regions more efficiently, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law on voluntary fire prevention in May of 2011. But instead of simplifying the procedure, specialists say that the law instead prevents people from getting involved in extinguishing wildfires voluntarily. The bureaucratic procedures take a long time, the necessary equipment is lacking and the volunteers have to pay their own training fees. 

The law encourages the creation of special voluntary firefighting brigades, which should have the status of a legal entity. “Difficult bureaucratic procedures, mandatory licensing and the lack of funding will stop poor people in the Russian countryside from setting up legal fire prevention entities,” Kuksin said. “They will not be able to hire professionals and pay them for the training and equipment. The law doesn’t work and it will not work.” 

All this may prevent people from putting out fires voluntarily, because technically any attempt to do so without a special license and involvement in special organizations will be considered illegal. Kuksin believes that this law is just a PR campaign, similar to Medvedev’s anti-corruption drive. Instead of being effective, the law will create more room for corruption, which will allow officials to pocket the money, he said.

Unlike Greenpeace, the Emergency Ministry strongly supports the law and views it as very effective in preventing wildfires. “We were waiting for this law for a long time and, in the end, we got it, which should make the procedure of forming a voluntary fire prevention brigade more straightforward,” said Smirnykh. Kuksin, however, believes that this law is incomplete and has a lot of holes that will allow people to circumvent it and put out wildfires without licenses. “We are currently training volunteers and we tell them what they should do if fire prevention officers ask to see their license. Technically, we don’t have the right to put out fires legally.”

So far, the volunteers haven’t been asked to show their license. Yet although the law contradicts other Russian federal laws, such as the law about the defense of the population against manmade and natural emergency situations, “we are not protected legally, which is not so good,” said volunteer Anna Baskakova. Despite this, Greenpeace has been engaged in training volunteers since winter. The number of well-trained volunteers has grown from 100 to 200 in 2011.  “People are aware of the current situation,” said Kuksin. “They don’t want this to happen again. Some of them signed up as fire prevention volunteers because their relatives and friends were killed in last year’s catastrophe.”

Baskakova is an experienced volunteer who has been engaged in firefighting and helping victims since August of last year. Upon seeing the victims of the fires in the town of Murmino in the Ryazan Region last year, she took up firefighting because “their faces and hands were burned. I witnessed the forests affected by the fires and people trying to cope with the disaster without the necessary equipment.” As a photographer, Baskakova takes pictures of the wildfires and participates in the Greenpeace trainings. “When I encountered a wildfire in September of 2010 in the Volgograd Region, I didn’t know what to do, and these courses helped me to learn how to behave during a wildfire, how to use the equipment, take pictures and provide people with first aid in emergency situations.”

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