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Russian fires rage on
Russian fires rage on
Kiril Zhurenkov and Vita Spivak

MOSCOW - They say that the most expensive lunch enjoyed by anyone in the world was when the head of Greenlight Capital, David Einhorn, spent ‘only’ $250,100 for the right to dine with Warren Buffet, who he had always admired.

Nikolai Taishikhin, who lives in a small town on Russia’ border with Mongolia, didn’t quite reach that record. But the bill for his picnic in the forest added up to around $107,784, including the court-ordered damages that he has to pay. You see, Nikolai didn’t extinguish his campfire after eating, and it sparked a major forest fire.

That little story wouldn’t be much more than a bit of trivia if it weren’t for the critical situation with forest fires in Russia this year. Specialists are blaming the dry winter and the very hot summer, but their report doesn’t overlook the impact of everyday people’s actions.

This year’s forest fires come only two years after widespread fires killed more than two dozen people and destroyed whole villages in July 2010, Russia’s hottest month on record since record-keeping began. The unusually hot weather in Russia comes on the heels of the hottest month on record in the United States.

According to a recently published scientific paper, scientists are nearly certain that the Russian heat wave of 2010 would not have happened if not for global warming. Now, only two years later, it’s hot again and fires threaten huge swaths of central Russia.

According to numbers from the Federal Forestry Agency, about 21,376 hectares of forest are burning around Russia, in a total of 176 separate fires. There are fires throughout several regions of Siberia. The southern part of the country has been put on alert, with fire danger extremely high, including Krasnodar Krai, which is still recovering from recent floods in the Crimea.

According to data quoted by Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev at a press conference, the situation is extreme in 11 regions of the country, with hot weather forecasted well into August.

Moscow is safe… for now

There is only one piece of good news: No one is predicting unusual or extreme conditions in the European part of Russia, unlike in 2010, when the Moscow region was particularly hard hit.

“In the area around Moscow we started fire-protection measures as early as May,” the deputy leader of the National Volunteer Firefighters Society Vladimir Ermilov. “We’ve bought all the appropriate tools, strengthened our fire awareness campaigns and continued watering the peat bog. Of course, if the whole month of August turns out to be dry and hot, then it’s impossible to guarantee anything.”

In any case, it is not only the government that is preparing, but also volunteers. “I decided to spend half the day today on fire prevention preparations in Kolionovo,” writes Mikhail Shlyapnikov on his blog. Shlyapnikov is a farmer who distinguished himself as a volunteer firefighter during the Siberian forest fires two years ago. “We still have to plow a fire-prevention strip around the town, put the nozzles on the hydrants, prepare the old people and give them barrels of water and paint the warning bells...”

But even if the central region of Russia is reasonably prepared for fires, the hot weather in Siberia arrived unexpectedly. Still, there should have been better preparation. In 2010 both experts and locals discovered a long list of problems: the closure of forestry stations, drying in the peat bogs, the lack of a developed volunteer firefighter system, lax laws on fire violations and even government workers who purposely downplayed the scale of the disaster.

Nevertheless, some lessons were learned and policy taken in the wake of the 2010 fires. For example, there have been changes in the laws: before, almost anyone could submit a bid for firefighting work, even fly-by-night companies that had no experience in the profession. Now companies that submit bids must meet strict requirements regarding firefighting preparation.

In general, the problem with drying peat bogs is being confronted (according to various sources, around one-third of the peat bogs in the region around Moscow are watered), and a National Forest Protection Service has been added to the Forestry code.

Unfortunately, this last change has happened only on paper: as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) experts have noted, there have been neither additional resources nor additional staff added to existing Forestry centers. And the creation of a volunteer network is moving slowly.

Of course, the civil servants who hide the true proportions of fires have, unfortunately, not gone anywhere.

According to Greenpeace’s Alexei Yaroshenko, one reason for large-scale fires getting out of control is the local officials who believe that it is better to conceal a fire with the hopes that it will be extinguished by rain than to report to higher state authorities and admit that you cannot handle the problem yourself.

This year, according to data from Greenpeace, the Amur Oblast in the Russia Far East has really distinguished itself. Greenpeace specialists say that the government workers there have been reporting the scope of the fires about 100 times smaller than they are in reality. And in another region, the prosecutor has already opened disciplinary proceedings against the region’s Minister of Natural Resources for failing to provide complete data on the developing situation.

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