Russia's Response To Fires Does Little To Calm

OREKHOVO-ZUYEVO, Russia — The flames, bright orange and menacing, advanced steadily through a field of dried-out reeds, sending up coils of smoke and heading in the general direction of a village that, with its log homes, picket fences and gigantic haystacks, seemed to have been laid out by an arsonist.

OREKHOVO-ZUYEVO, Russia — The flames, bright orange and menacing, advanced steadily through a field of dried-out reeds, sending up coils of smoke and heading in the general direction of a village that, with its log homes, picket fences and gigantic haystacks, seemed to have been laid out by an arsonist.

With calamity perhaps only a few minutes away, all that stood between the flames and the village, Zaprudino, was 58-year-old Vladimir M. Ulyonov, equipped with a shovel and a lot of anger at his government for failing to provide even the most minimal assistance.

In this summer of extreme heat, drought, crop failures and, now, a nationwide eruption of wildfires, the Russian government is facing a rare upwelling of popular anger. More than 3,000 people have been left homeless because of the fires, the government has said, and 52 have been killed.

And as the acres burn and the damage mounts, the government is being tested at all levels and, quite often, found wanting. After decades of institutional inertia and official corruption, opposition figures here say, the government’s capacity to respond to crises has been severely eroded, a fact that has emerged starkly in recent days.

When the wildfires broke out, stoked by the hottest weather here since record-keeping began, more than 130 years, ago, officials and the Russian news media reported that firefighters had discovered access roads to the forests were overgrown and in poor repair, ponds intended to provide water for refilling their tanks were filled with sludge and their fire trucks were frequently broken down.

Local officials also blame a revised 2006 forest code that allowed logging companies to contract out firefighting operations. When the fires broke out, the contractors were woefully unprepared and inadequately equipped, said Viktor N. Sorokhin, a deputy head of administration for the Orekhovo-Zuyevo district, about 50 miles east of Moscow.

The new code also cut the number of foresters in the district by half, he added, to 150 from 300.

As the fire damage mounts, critics have noted that Ilim Pulp, a timber company half owned by International Paper, where President Dmitiri A. Medvedev worked as a corporate lawyer in the 1990s, had lobbied hard for the legislation easing logging regulation.

Whatever the reasons, a recent tour found the Orekhovo-Zoyevo district in dire need of more equipment and personnel. Beside the M-108 highway, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt carved through a towering birch forest, a fire burned without a single firefighter in sight, smoke wafting onto the road as trucks zoomed past through the haze.



To deflect mounting criticism, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has met fire victims and given generous aid to those who lost homes. On Thursday, he banned grain exports to ease concern of shortages or rising prices.

Russia’s leaders have also made daily announcements critical of lower-level officials. On Friday, Mr. Medvedev said he would hold mayors accountable for negligence. On Thursday, he cut short a vacation in Sochi, on the Black Sea, to return to Moscow and dismiss five military officials for failing to protect a base in the Moscow region that burned.

“If something similar happens in other places, in other agencies, I’ll do exactly the same thing, with no sympathy,” he said.

Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for Mr. Putin, said the criticism of governors and other local officials merely reflected the division of responsibility for firefighting in Russia, as most fire brigades come under regional authorities.

Whoever is ultimately responsible, the fires have done extensive damage, and many continue to burn out of control. The Russian government had had to remove artillery shells from one military base and to remove radioactive material from a huge nuclear research complex in central Russia.

On Saturday, Moscow was choked with smoke, which seemed more like a smelly fog, thick enough to leave an aftertaste and a sensation of cement dust in the mouth. Residents wandered in the milky haze, many wearing surgical masks and dazed looks.

Dozens of flights were delayed Saturday as visibility dropped to about 350 yards at the city’s airports, after 140 flights were delayed the day before. The State Department has cautioned Americans against travel to Moscow.



The Ministry of Emergency Situations has called for volunteers to help fight the fires, acknowledging that the 10,000 or so firefighters deployed are overwhelmed and unable to attend to every fire — something residents of fire-stricken areas have been saying for days.

By Saturday, the village of Zaprudino was still standing, said Yulia A. Gavrikova, a spokeswoman for the ministry, though residents said a graveyard on the outskirts went up in smoke.

Mr. Medvedev, meanwhile, said he had established a private charitable fund for wildfire victims with an initial donation of 350,000 rubles, or about $11,740, of his own money.

Russians typically suffer far more from fires than people in most developed countries. In 2006, more than 17,000 people died in fires, nearly 13 for every 100,000 people — more than 10 times the rates in Western Europe and the United States.

This year’s wildfires are not extraordinary by Russian standards, having burned 1.8 million acres of land, according to the Ministry of Emergency Situations. By this time last year, the ministry said, fires had burned 2.3 million acres (compared with 2.05 million acres in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, in Idaho).

In a typical year, however, fires consume large tracts of remote Siberian forests, with little impact elsewhere. This year, by contrast, with the intense heat and drought in the Western regions, a larger number of relatively small fires are burning in densely occupied areas, like those in and around Moscow.

The hotter weather left the forest more prone to burn with a casually flicked cigarette or cinders from a tipped barbeque, while the number of fire sources in remote areas was no greater than in previous years.



Mr. Putin, who rarely responds to criticism, felt compelled to answer a posting on the Web site of the Echo of Moscow radio station. In it, a resident of a village in the Tver region wrote that under the Communists, “there were three fire ponds in the village, a bell that tolled when a fire began, and — guess what — a fire truck.”

Mr. Putin, visiting a village in the Nizhny Novgorod region where 11 people had died in a fire, got a firsthand view of the rising anger over the fire response. When he waded into a crowd to discuss a plan for monetary compensation, a woman yelled in anger.

“You didn’t do anything, everything is burning, don’t make promises,” the woman said, according to a video of the encounter posted on the Internet. Mr. Putin said he could do nothing now, as the village had already burned. “We asked for help. We trusted you. Why didn’t anybody do anything?” the woman said.

Mr. Putin responded by again describing the compensation plan. “We will spend 100,000 rubles for every person, every member of the family,” he said, and said local authorities would match that sum, about $3,300.

At this village, though hardly at every fire-damaged site, crews had already arrived to clear the rubble and begin reconstruction.

Source: nytimes.com