Volunteers pitch in to fight Russia's raging forest fires

  • A member of volunteers crew mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow.  About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    A member of volunteers crew mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • A member of volunteers crew walks past a burning grass near the edge of the fire at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021.  The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    A member of volunteers crew walks past a burning grass near the edge of the fire at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • Member of volunteers crew dig a fire-break moat to stop the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    Member of volunteers crew dig a fire-break moat to stop the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • Ivan Nikiforov, member of volunteers crew pose for a photo as he monitors a backfire they lit to stop the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Saturday, July 17, 2021. As the smoke intensified, Ivan Nikiforov took a leave from his office job in the city - not to escape the bad air but to head into the fires as a volunteer. The volunteers rely on their own money or funds from nongovernmental groups. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow.

    Ivan Nikiforov, member of volunteers crew pose for a photo as he monitors a backfire they lit to stop the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Saturday, July 17, 2021. As the smoke intensified, Ivan Nikiforov took a leave from his office job in the city - not to escape the bad air but to head into the fires as a volunteer. The volunteers rely on their own money or funds from nongovernmental groups. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Associated Press

  • Maxim Yefremov, member of volunteers crew adjusts his gas mask as he mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    Maxim Yefremov, member of volunteers crew adjusts his gas mask as he mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • A member of volunteers crew monitors a backfire they lit to stop the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    A member of volunteers crew monitors a backfire they lit to stop the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • Members of Avialesookhrana crew rest as they dig a moat to stop a forest fire at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    Members of Avialesookhrana crew rest as they dig a moat to stop a forest fire at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • Members of volunteers crew walk to their camp after battle the fire at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

    Members of volunteers crew walk to their camp after battle the fire at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital of Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people. Associated Press

  • Member of volunteers crew rest at their tent camp at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Volunteers have joined over 5,000 regular firefighters in the effort, motivated by their love of the vast region.

    Member of volunteers crew rest at their tent camp at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Volunteers have joined over 5,000 regular firefighters in the effort, motivated by their love of the vast region. Associated Press

  • Mikhail Zhirkov, member of volunteers crew speaks during his interview with the Associated Press at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. More than 5,000 regular firefighters are involved, but the scale of the blazes is so large and the area is so enormous that 55% of the fires aren't being fought at all, according to Avialesookhrana, the agency that oversees the effort. That means the volunteers, who take time off work and rely on their own money or nongovernmental funds, are a small but important addition to the overwhelmed forces.

    Mikhail Zhirkov, member of volunteers crew speaks during his interview with the Associated Press at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. More than 5,000 regular firefighters are involved, but the scale of the blazes is so large and the area is so enormous that 55% of the fires aren't being fought at all, according to Avialesookhrana, the agency that oversees the effort. That means the volunteers, who take time off work and rely on their own money or nongovernmental funds, are a small but important addition to the overwhelmed forces. Associated Press

  • Denis Markov, an instructor at a base for paratrooper firefighters from Tomsk speaks during his interview fro the Associated Press at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Friday, July 23, 2021. "Volunteers are doing a great job. Their help is significant because the area and distances are quite large, so the more people there are, the more effective our efforts are to control the fires," said Dennis Markov. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow.

    Denis Markov, an instructor at a base for paratrooper firefighters from Tomsk speaks during his interview fro the Associated Press at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Friday, July 23, 2021. "Volunteers are doing a great job. Their help is significant because the area and distances are quite large, so the more people there are, the more effective our efforts are to control the fires," said Dennis Markov. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Associated Press

  • A member of volunteers crew monitors the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Volunteers have joined over 5,000 regular firefighters in the effort, motivated by their love of the vast region. The volunteers rely on their own money or funds from nongovernmental groups.

    A member of volunteers crew monitors the fire from spreading at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Volunteers have joined over 5,000 regular firefighters in the effort, motivated by their love of the vast region. The volunteers rely on their own money or funds from nongovernmental groups. Associated Press

  • A member of volunteers crew rests as he mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Volunteers have joined over 5,000 regular firefighters in the effort, motivated by their love of the vast region.

    A member of volunteers crew rests as he mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. Volunteers have joined over 5,000 regular firefighters in the effort, motivated by their love of the vast region. Associated Press

  • Trees burn at during a forest fire near the Syamozero Lake in Pryazhinsky District of the Republic of Karelia, about 700 km.(438 miles) south-west of Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008.

    Trees burn at during a forest fire near the Syamozero Lake in Pryazhinsky District of the Republic of Karelia, about 700 km.(438 miles) south-west of Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008. Associated Press

  • A firefighting crew mops up spot fires near the Syamozero Lake in Pryazhinsky District of the Republic of Karelia, about 700 km.(438 miles) south-west of Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008.

    A firefighting crew mops up spot fires near the Syamozero Lake in Pryazhinsky District of the Republic of Karelia, about 700 km.(438 miles) south-west of Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008. Associated Press

  • Smoke rises from a forest fire near the Syamozero Lake in Pryazhinsky District of the Republic of Karelia, about 700 km.(438 miles) south-west of Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008.

    Smoke rises from a forest fire near the Syamozero Lake in Pryazhinsky District of the Republic of Karelia, about 700 km.(438 miles) south-west of Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008. Associated Press

 
 
Posted7/27/2021 7:00 AM

GORNY ULUS, Russia -- The little domed tents of the volunteer firefighters in the clearing of a Siberian forest can be hard to see - even from only a few steps away - because of the choking smoke. Their shovels and saws seem to be tiny tools against the vast blaze, like toy weapons brought to a war.

But their love of the vast and wild region is a powerful motivator in a summer of sprawling fires that might become Russia's worst ever.

 

As of Monday, about 1.88 million hectares (4.6 million acres) of forest were burning in Russia - an area larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut.

More than 5,000 regular firefighters are involved, but the scale is so large and the area is so enormous that 55% of the fires aren't being fought at all, according to Avialesookhrana, the agency that oversees the effort.

That means the volunteers, who take time off work and rely on their own money or nongovernmental funds, are a small but important addition to the overwhelmed forces.

'The guys (volunteers) are doing a great job. Their help is significant because the area and distances are quite large, so the more people there are, the more effective our efforts are to control the fires," said Denis Markov, an instructor at a base for paratrooper firefighters in Tomsk, who is working with some of the volunteers.

The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia's fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital, Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

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As the smoke intensified, Ivan Nikiforov took a leave from his office job in the city - not to escape the bad air but to head into the fires as a volunteer.

'I think it's important to participate as a volunteer because our republic, our shared land and our forests are burning. This is what we'll be leaving for our children and our grandchildren," he said at his group's encampment in the Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk.

Nikiforov and a small contingent of other volunteers firebreak trenches, chop down trees and set small controlled fires to try to block the spread.

Volunteers in the area received some support from the nongovernmental agency Sinet-Spark, which provided sleeping bags, gloves and heavy equipment. Alexandra Kozulina, the group's director of projects, said Sinet-Spark initially had planned to spend its money on information campaigns but decided to provide equipment as the fires worsened.

'I also believe our government should be doing this. I don't understand why it isn't happening - whether there isn't enough money because budgets were cut, or some other reason, but we are doing what is in our power," she said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The main problem, many observers say, is that the size of the aerial forest protection agency has been reduced, along with the number of rangers.

"I can personally remember how each district had a branch of Avialesookhrana with 15-20 paratroopers. They constantly made observation flights and put out fires as soon as they started," said Fedot Tumusov, a member of the Russian parliament from Sakha.

The 2007 changes that reduced the number of rangers also gave control over timberlands to regional authorities and businesses, eroding centralized monitoring, fueling corruption and contributing to illegal tree-cutting practices that help spawn fires.

Critics also say the law allows authorities to let fires burn in certain areas if the potential damage is considered not worth the cost of containing them. They say this encourages inaction by authorities and slows firefighting efforts, so a blaze that could have been extinguished at a relatively small cost is often allowed to burn uncontrolled.

This year's fires in Siberia already have emitted more carbon than those in some previous years, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

He said the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other Russian regions are particularly harmful in terms of emissions because the peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.

'Then it's releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere,' Parrington said.

While pledging adherence to the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often underline the key role played by the country's forests in slowing down global warming. However, regular fires have the opposite effect, dramatically boosting carbon emissions.

'Everyone emphasizes that we have huge forests, but no one so far has calculated how much our forest fires contribute to greenhouse gas emissions,' said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.

It's too early to tell whether this year's fires will reach a record-breaking scale, Kreindlin says, noting that the situation in Siberia has been particularly difficult for the past three years. What sets 2021 apart is that Karelia - a small region in northwestern Russia on the border with Finland - also has been engulfed by devastating, unprecedented fires.

As of Monday, Karelia was among the top three regions affected by the fires, according to Avialesookhrana, with 22 of them still active on more than 11,000 hectares (27,180 acres).

'The fact that Karelia got ablaze so unexpectedly - there were fires there before, but there hasn't been such massive fires there in many years - shows that in general the situation with the fires in the country is extremely difficult and poorly controlled,' Kreindlin said.

Volunteers have helped in Karelia as well. Anna Gorbunova, coordinator with the Society of Volunteer Forest Firefighters that focuses on the Ladoga Skerries national park in Karelia, told The Associated Press last week that the blazes there this year are the biggest since 2008.

As of July 20, the group counted 32 fires in the national park throughout the summer. 'And it's only been half of the summer, so it's an absolute record throughout all these years,' Gorbunova said.

___

Litvinova reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.

--

Follow all AP stories on climate change at https://apnews.com/hub/climate

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