Forest fires in Russia

The loss of Soviet-era foresters is at the root of the environmental devastation now occurring.

As has been widely reported, Russia was devastated this summer by forest fires raging over thousands of square miles, which have destroyed not only woodlands but also a serious proportion of Russian crops, especially wheat – creating a world shortage.

Entire villages and towns have been burnt down. Fifty people have been killed in the fires and 2,000 families have been left homeless. In Moscow and other Russian towns during July and August this year, the death rate doubled as inhabitants struggled to breathe in the oxygen-depleted air.

Tens of millions of people have been directly or indirectly affected by the fires, which to this day continue to burn in places, even though a total of 238,000 firefighters and 226 aircraft have been somewhat belatedly mobilised to battle the flames in 14 regions.

The blame has tended to be laid at the door of an exceptionally hot, dry summer, and the possibility that this is related to global warming. However, the truth of the matter is that the fire hazard presented by the forests, which cover 809m hectares (twice the area of the European Union), and the peat that lies below them that is prone to ignite spontaneously in hot, dry weather, has always been a major concern in Russia demanding extreme vigilance to avert perennial disasters.

Because of this hazard, very thorough measures were taken in the past to ensure that any fires that did break out were quickly identified and extinguished before they could get out of control. In Soviet times, there was a large body of foresters who were competent and specialised in caring for the country’s woodlands.

However, after the fall of communism, these foresters were required to sell wood in order to pay their own salaries, and marketing this commodity took over from most of their former duties. The neglect of forests was further aggravated by the abolition by the Russian state of the Ministry of the Environment in 2000, with its responsibilities transferred in 2004 to the Ministry of Natural Resources, whose function is to exploit these resources rather than to protect them.

Protection of the environment ceased to be a matter for central government, and the regions had neither the experience nor the wherewithal of organising effective fire prevention. In Soviet times, danger zones were subject to constant aerial supervision in case a fire broke out – that surveillance is long gone.

The culmination came with the introduction of a new Forest Code in 2006. “The new Code removed responsibility for forest supervision from federal agencies and put it in the hands of local authorities and logging companies who were eager to gain access to the county’s great forest resources throughout the country’s taiga, or northern forests.

As a result, there is no longer a federal agency that regulates and responds to forest management and forest fires. And, out of the 83,000 people once employed by the Federal Forest Protection Agency, only 680 forest inspectors remained at Rosprirodnadzor (Russia’s environmental protection agency) — the equivalent of about eight people per administrative division of Russia.” (See ‘The lessons to be learned from Russia’s fires’ by David Gordon, The Huffington Post, 19 September 2010)

In fact, as a result of this new Forest Code, fire prevention tasks are split between regional authorities and private leaseholders (mainly logging companies, whose eyes are too fixed to the bottom line to notice fire hazards); so what used to be the work of thousands of experienced foresters is in the hands of a much smaller number of inexperienced and underfunded local officials.

Among others, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation has for years been bombarding the authorities with experts’ reports drawing attention to the dangers that these changes pose for Russia, but not the slightest notice has been taken of their concerns.

Special anxiety is caused by the area round Chernobyl, which is still contaminated from the disastrous reactor leak of radioactive material. If this area is affected by fire, as indeed it has been in the recent fires, there is the possibility that the toxic smoke will pick up and spread radioactive particles as well.

There are no reports that this has yet happened, but two years ago, Greenpeace Russia appealed to the Russian government to provide 300m roubles to equip local foresters and firefighters in the radioactively contaminated area. What the government conceded was woefully inadequate. A token 48m roubles, which was enough for only 37 cars and machines, manned by a total of just 14 foresters to cover an area of 300,000 hectares!

Furthermore Greenpeace estimates that Russia needs at least 30bn roubles if it is successfully to combat the current fires nationwide, but its total allocation for firefighting in 2010 was a paltry 2.2bn roubles.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on 15 August sacked Alexei Savinov, the head of the Forestry Agency, over criticism that he did little to combat deadly forest fires that were unleashed by a record heat wave and blanketed Moscow in smoke. However, it is not Savinov who was responsible for the Forestry Agency being grossly understaffed and underfunded, but the bourgeois Russian government, which has been scrimping and saving on essential public services in order to assist in maximising the profits of big business.