Russia in flames: residents of Yakutia and Karelia fight forest fires on their own, while officials earn

While Russian President Vladimir Putin was writing an article about “one people” with Ukraine and sending special equipment to quench fires in Turkey, thousands of hectares of forest in Yakutia and Karelia were burning in Russia itself.

The situation in Yakutia

Yakutia (the Republic of Sakha), which is located in northeastern Siberia and is the largest administrative-territorial unit in the world – is suffering from fire. Locals suspect that Yakut officials are involved, in such a way trying to cover up illegal logging and make money by fighting fires at public expense.

Fires are approaching settlements, and smoke is spreading not only in the neighboring Krasnoyarsk Krai. Smog covers almost all of Siberia and has already reached Tatarstan, Kazakhstan, and the southwestern part of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. Moreover, six fires were detected in the specially protected natural area “Lena Pillars” and Olekminsky Reserve. According to the Ministry of Ecology of the Republic, the fire is currently posing a potential threat to the Svitlyn hydroelectric power plant, despite that, it faces a natural obstacle – the Vilyuy River.

On July 11, a popular Russian blogger told about a huge forest fire in Yakutia. At the same time, as he notes, the Russian media tried to avoid this topic in every possible way.

Firefighters tried to cause rain over the problem areas, but most often the fight against the fire for a long time was reduced to watering it from special backpacks with a capacity of 15-18 liters. In such a way local firefighters, together with activists, including women and children, (the local authorities deny children’s participation despite the video and photo proofs) tried to quench the fire, as there is simply no other equipment and machinery.

In addition, in 2015, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation identified so-called “control zones” where extinguishing a forest fire is “economically impractical”. These areas include almost half of all forests in Russia. And if one looks at the map of Yakutia, most of it just falls under these “control zones”.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, locals asked Moscow to pay attention to them. As an example, they suggested buying or sending amphibious aircraft Be-200, which collect water from water sources (rivers or lakes) and then dump it on fire. But the Russians had to wait a long time for salvation because of the Kremlin’s geopolitical games. On Putin’s order, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu sent amphibious aircraft to Turkey, where forest fires are also burning. Russia came to Erdogan’s aid, but not to its citizens’.

No longer hoping to get help from the authorities, activists tried to draw the attention of world celebrities to the catastrophe, including the American Leonardo DiCaprio. This step turned out to be the most effective. However, instead of fighting the fire, local authorities began harassing journalists and activists who reported on the disaster.

In particular, activist Rosa Dyachkovskaya, born in Yakutia, was heavily criticized and persecuted after seeking help from DiCaprio. The girl was forced to make a statement on social networks, in which she announced with tears in her eyes, that she “wants to live a normal life and will delete all her reports of the fire”. 

Later, it became clear even in Moscow that the situation in Yakutia was spiraling out of control. Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment sent a letter to the Prosecutor General’s Office with a request to take measures against the Yakutian authorities (who conceal the real state of forest fires and take insufficient measures to extinguish them). Thus, according to information on some fires, space monitoring data and Yakut officials’ reports differed 40 times.

In response, the Yakut Ministry of Ecology, Nature Management and Nature Protection spread a statement in the media that these figures were false and that the actual area of ​​the taiga engulfed in fire needed to be monitored, “but there is no money for that”.

However, this year alone, Yakutia received 1,7 billion rubles from the federal budget to fight forest fires. Despite this, 15-18-liter backpacks remained the main weapon against the fire, which covered over a million hectares of forest. The situation changed only when the information was disclosed. As of July 27, two helicopters and 3 BE-200 aircraft were involved in monitoring the situation and extinguishing fires.  

The story itself raises a lot of questions for local authorities. People in the region are convinced that officials are behind the forest fires, thus trying to hide illegal logging, as well as to make money on funding received from Moscow to quench fires.

Many reports in the media can be found in support of this version over the recent years:

На підтвердження цієї версії можна знайти багато повідомлень у ЗМІ за останні роки:

  1. In Yakutia, sturgeons die in the Lena River
  2. Deforestation in Yakutia will lead to the melting of permafrost – scientists
  3. Illegal deforestation in ten districts of Yakutia has been revealed by the police
  4. Yakutia suffocates in a smoke – “Nikolaev, resign!”
  5. “They set fire to what is profitable to cut down.” How “commercial” forest fires work

Moreover, local authorities seriously monitor comments on social networks on the topic of special arson, and then personally write to people that this is not true. So it is clear that officials have something to hide and they do not want this version to be voiced further. 

As of July 28, over 1,3 million hectares of forests are burning in Yakutia, and 1 191 fires have been registered in the country since the fire season began. Russian authorities say 126 fires have been reported so far, including 48 forest fires. The area of ​​fires is so large that, according to the Aerial Forest Protection Service, 55% of them are not extinguished at all, again due to “lack of funding”, which does not allow purchasing the required amount of equipment and hiring people. Volunteers from the residents continue to help rescuers fight the fire.

The Republic of Karelia

Meanwhile, forest fires have engulfed Karelia, located in northern Europe and bordering Finland. As of July 27, forest fires were recorded in the republic on an area of ​​almost 11,3 thousand hectares.

Locals are fighting fire day and night without any special equipment. Help from firefighting equipment and helicopters is badly needed. At the same time, local officials report receiving aid from other regions.

Residents of the village of Naistenjärvi had to hold the fire alone for 5 days. Local authorities, instead of extinguishing a small fire at the time, offered people to evacuate. So they decided to save their homes on their own. They created volunteer squads and coordinated actions on social networks, but without special equipment, it was almost impossible to put out the fire. People found themselves in a ring of fire.

Aid was sent to Naistenjärvi only after the fire spread to people’s homes. The fire around the village continues to this day and is considered one of the largest in Karelia.

Author: Oksana Kuzan

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