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Russian Fire Victims Complain of Response as Peat Feeds Flames

Russian Fire Victims Complain of Response
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called for an overhaul of fire units and the purchase of modern machinery. Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Bloomberg

Galina Mikhalyova watched as fire swept out of a nearby peat field and through the forest, destroying the village of Mokhovoye, southeast of Moscow, and the 22-unit apartment block that used to be her home.

The community could have been saved if the government had responded to residents’ pleas for help, Mikhalyova said by phone from the school in neighboring Beloomut where she and 135 neighbors have lived since the July 29 inferno.

“We had just five engines and one fire hydrant,” she said. “We didn’t have enough water, and engines ran out of fuel so they stood idle. Can you combat the fire with just five engines? We asked for helicopters, we didn’t get them. They could have rescued us.”

Russian wildfires, many ignited by smoldering peat fields, have scorched an area three times the size of Luxembourg and killed 52 people amid the worst drought in 50 years, revealing shortages of equipment and drawing complaints about government response. President Dmitry Medvedev has called for an overhaul of fire units and the purchase of modern machinery.

“Their capability isn’t fit for such weather conditions,” Medvedev said Aug. 5 during a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has traveled to affected regions, met with victims and ordered governors to speed up compensation.

New equipment will be delivered to fire units over the next five years, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said the same day. Modern technologies are needed for fire fighting, as well as monitoring forests and peat fields, he said.

Record Temperatures

Record temperatures are feeding the fires, many in drained peat bogs that once produced 50 million metric tons of fuel a year and are now mostly abandoned because of a lack of demand. Temperatures of at least 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) will plague central Russia through Aug. 13, according to the state Hydrometeorological Center.

Putin met with residents of Mokhovoye last week, pledging they would get new houses by Nov. 1. He ordered the government to allocate 2 million rubles ($67,121) for each new house, plus 200,000 rubles for lost property.

Police blocked access to the village Aug. 4 to prevent civilians from being struck by falling trees. The forest alongside the road was scorched, with flames still licking at smoldering trees. Bare-chested men with wet cloths over their faces worked to put out the fires and cut through fallen trees.

Nothing Left

“We hope we will get those houses,” said Mikhalyova, who has lived in Mokhovoye since 1979. “I have been left with nothing.”

“We have peat fields and there were fires before, houses and sheds burnt, but I haven’t seen anything like it in my lifetime,” she said. “We did not think we would burn, we all stood by our houses. But then smoke came and we heard a droning noise and we saw flames. We all just fled.”

Apart from the weather, the main thing spreading the fires is neglected peat resources, said Pyotr Gurko, head of state peat developments in Soviet Russia. Peat bogs were drained during the Soviet era so the peat could be cut for power stations and the land used for agriculture. Once ignited, peat fires burn deep under the surface and are hard to extinguish.

The Moscow region’s 18 peat processing plants produced as much as 6 million tons in 1988, said Gurko, who is also editor-in-chief of Peat and Business magazine.

“This year, they are all idle,” Gurko said. “There is no control, no one guarding them. This is the main problem. Fires start. There are no fires where peat developments continue to operate.”

‘It’s The Neglect’

His words were echoed by Nikolai Dyomichev, an Emergency Ministry colonel overseeing firefighting near Ryazanovsky, southeast of Moscow, where a peat plant once operated.

“The village lived off it,” Dyomichev said. “They had equipment, they monitored the situation. They are gone now, no work, nothing. It’s the neglect. And then you get this abnormal weather.”

Dyomichev and Gurko say control of the peat fields has to be restored, and those that are no longer in use should be re-flooded. The government should also restore the firefighting system created after the 1972 fire season, complete with reservoirs and monitoring networks, they said.

About 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) were scorched in 1972, double the figure so far this year, according to the state-run newswire RIA Novosti.

Moscow region Governor Boris Gromov said Aug. 3 that local authorities began flooding peat fields after fires in 2002 but work wasn’t completed. The project will resume, he told Putin.

Rather than waiting for fire to burn her house, Anna Morozli and her neighbors hired a tractor to dig a fire break around their five homes 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Mokhovoye.

While her home escaped the flames, Morozli, 63, watched as the residents of Mokhovoye fled the burning town.

“There was panic, people understood there was nothing they could do in the face of the elements,” the retired lawyer said over a cup of tea inside her house where the doors and windows shut tight to keep out the smoke. “People didn’t believe it was possible. The fire engulfed all in sheer minutes.”

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