Byas-Kyuel (Russia) (AFP)
As thick clouds of smoke rise across the vast Siberian region of Yakutia, Yegor Zakharov and his team rush to keep its smoldering forests from burning further.
Members of the Russian Forest Protection Air Service, his team spent a July evening patrolling a five-kilometer (three-mile) trench they had dug on the outskirts of the village of Byas-Kyuel to ward off a forest fire. approaching.
Wearing acrid smoke respirators, the men lit rubber tire bands which they hung from sticks, then tapped them on the dry forest floor on the other side of the trench to start a burn. control.
The team has lost track of the number of fires they have faced since late May – most successfully, sometimes not – as Yakutia suffers another season of increasingly severe wildfires.
“We held a property for eight days but it ended up burning because the tractors never got to us,” Zakharov said, explaining that in such cases they instead use shovels to dig trenches.
But even more than material, the 35-year-old brigade leader has another urgent plea: “We need more people”.
Fueled by summer heat waves, the wildfires swept over 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of Yakutia’s conifer swamp taiga, with more than a month to go. annual fire in Siberia.
Large areas of Russia have suffered from heat waves and droughts caused by climate change in recent years, with many temperature records set.
# photo1This is the third year in a row that Yakutia – Russia’s coldest region bordering the Arctic Ocean – has experienced wildfires so violent they have almost overwhelmed the Forest Protection Service.
– Limited manpower –
The group of about 250 full-time employees and 150 summer contract workers, who track fires from the air and drop down by parachute or all-terrain trucks, is responsible for an area roughly five times the size. size of France.
Their goal, said chief observer for Yakutia pilots, Svyatoslav Kolesov, is to extinguish the fires completely. But they also have to deal with fires that overwhelm their workforce.
# photo2The number of firefighters in the area is nowhere near enough, Kolesov told AFP, recalling that when it started in 1988, the group numbered around 1,600 before suffering cuts over the years.
Kolesov, who monitors daily flight fires and gives instructions to ground crews, said that due to limited resources, the group will often keep an eye out for a new fire until it becomes large. Only then will he send a team.
“And if the fires spread quickly and soon cover a large area, then we are trying to save populated areas and strategic objects,” he said.
Environmentalists have long argued that Russia is underfunding its forest fire fighting capabilities.
The country’s environment ministry itself is open about politics, issuing a decree in 2015 that allows regions to ignore fires if the cost of fighting fires exceeds expected damage.
“We have been saying for years that Russia should at least triple its budget to fight forest fires,” Grigory Kuksin, head of Greenpeace’s forest fire unit, told AFP in the country.
– ‘Everything would burn’ –
In early July, Russia mobilized its defense and emergency ministries to help Yakutia fight the forest fires, while dozens of volunteers also took over.
But the lack of funds for the Forest Protection Air Service – the only group entirely dedicated to fighting forest fires, according to Kolesov – is evident on the ground.
Brigade leader Zakharov said he repeatedly asked authorities for a quad that had never arrived so that his men did not have to patrol their trenches on foot.
“I loaned most of my equipment to a team during a nearby fire,” he explained.
He later received the all-terrain vehicle, but not before officials, in 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? Zakharov said, adding that he fled before the meeting was over.
The brigade commander and his men nevertheless planned to continue fighting. After Byas-Kyuel, they planned to go straight to the next traffic light without pausing.
“If we weren’t here,” Zakharov said, “everything would burn down”.
© 2021 AFP