We need more people': Exhausted firefighters fight fires in Siberia

We need more people': Exhausted firefighters fight fires in Siberia
We need more people': Exhausted firefighters fight fires in Siberia

More than a month remains until the end of the annual fire-hazardous season in Siberia, but more than 1.5 million hectares of the boggy coniferous taiga of Yakutia have already been lost.

Yegor Zakharov and his team are trying to stop the smoldering forests so that they do not burn even more, while thick clouds of smoke billow over the vast Siberian region of Yakutia.

Russian forestry aviation officials spent a July evening patrolling the five-kilometer trench they had dug on the outskirts of the village of Byas-Kyuel to contain an impending wildfire.

Wearing acrid smoke respirators, the men lit strips of rubber tires, which they hung on sticks, and then tapped them on dry forest floor on the other side of the trench to start a controlled burning.

The team lost track of how many fires they had eliminated since the end of May - mostly successfully, sometimes not - as Yakutia is experiencing another season of wildfires.

“We held one site for eight days, but in the end it burned down because the tractors never reached it,” Zakharov said, explaining that in such cases they use shovels to dig trenches.

But even more than equipment, the 35-year-old brigade commander has another urgent request: "We need more people."

Because of the summer heat, forest fires have engulfed more than 1.5 million hectares of boggy coniferous taiga in Yakutia, and more than a month remains until the end of the annual fire-hazardous season in Siberia.

In recent years, vast areas of Russia have been suffering from heat and drought caused by climate change, and the country has set many temperature records.

For the third year in a row in Yakutia - the coldest region of Russia bordering the Arctic Ocean - forest fires are so strong that they almost overwhelmed the forest protection service.

A group of roughly 250 full-time employees and 150-year-old contractors, who track fires by air and parachute or use off-road vehicles, is responsible for a region about five times the size of France

Their goal, according to the chief pilot-observer of Yakutia, Svyatoslav Kolesov, is to completely extinguish the fires. But they also have to deal with fires that exceed their capacity.

The number of firefighters in the region is far from necessary, Kolesov said in an interview with AFP, recalling that when he started working in 1988, the group had about 1,600 people, and then over the years it was reduced.

Kolesov, who monitors fires from daily flights and gives directions to teams on the ground, said that due to limited resources, the group often monitors new fires until it becomes significant. Only then does she send the group there.

"And if fires spread quickly and soon cover a large area, then we are trying to save settlements and strategic facilities," he said.

Environmentalists have long argued that Russia is underfinancing its forces and resources to fight forest fires.

The country's ecology ministry itself is openly pursuing such a policy, issuing a decree in 2015 allowing regions to ignore fires if the costs of extinguishing them outweigh the expected damage

"We have been saying for many years that Russia needs to increase its budget for combating forest fires at least three times", - said AFP Grigory Kuksin, the head of the Greenpeace group to combat forest fires in the country.

- Everything will burn."

In early July, Russia mobilized its defense and emergency ministries to help Yakutia fight forest fires, as well as dozens of volunteers.

But the lack of funds for the Forestry Aviation Service - the only group fully dedicated to forest fire fighting, according to Kolesov - is evident in the field.

The brigade commander, Zakharov, says he has repeatedly asked officials to provide the ATV, which was never received, so that his fighters do not have to patrol the trench on foot.

“I borrowed most of my equipment to the brigade at a nearby fire,” he explained.

He later received the all-terrain vehicle, but not before officials at a recent planning meeting disparaged the progress made by his team of five full-time employees and eight summer contractors.

"What right do they have to criticize us?" said Zakharov, adding that he ran out before the end of the meeting.

Nevertheless, the brigade commander and his subordinates planned to continue the battle. After Byas-Kyuel, they planned to go straight to the next fire without interruption.

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