Volunteers Pitch In to Fight Russia’s Raging Forest Fires

GORNY ULUS, Russia (AP) -
A member of volunteers crew mops up spot fires at Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk, Russia, Thursday. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)

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 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.