Russia: Towns and Villages on Fire

Global Voices Online
Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hundreds of forest and peat fires are raging across central Russia; thousands of people are being evacuated from the affected areas, and, sadly, there are reports of human casualties (at least 28, as of now).

In the video below, shot on July 26 in the village of Ulyishchi, 5 km away from the town of Kulebaki in Nizhny Novgorod region, a woman is asking: "Is this really the end of the world? Or is it just a fire?"

The organization of the firefighting effort has been inadequate in many cases, and local residents often choose to self-mobilize and defend nearby towns and villages with whatever means they happen have at their disposal.

LJ user vollove writes about and posts photos (RUS) from one such impromptu firefighting expedition, desperate, futile and dangerous, that took place on July 29 in the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya, close to the town of Vyksa, also in Nizhny Novgorod region:

Decided to cooperate with the guys from the Vyksa [internet forum], to participate in the firefighting effort. Left a message on the forum, people responded, I picked them up after work, one guy and two young women. We stopped by at a store, bought spades. Decided to go to Verkhnyaya Vereya. [...] Arrived. Walked to the forest, waited. Lots of people around, a fire truck, everyone with bottles of water and with spades. Everyone's waiting. Thick smoke is coming from behind the forest. This goes on for 20-30 minutes.


Then the smoke grows blacker and more intense. [...] Gradually, everything turns really dark around, as if during some solar eclipse. Red light appears over the forest, like dawn. The noise grows and is approaching. Then the flames can already be seen over the forest above the trees. The wind grows stronger, gradually turning into something of a hurricane. All the dust starts to rise, blown into our eyes, and it's hard to see well in general. Then somehow the fire enters from everywhere ... from above. It looks like the flames the height of a 10-story building. And even though we are standing some 50 meters in front of the forest, we feel the heat from this flame. [...] All these little spades, hydrants and firehoses in front of the flames that are 20 meters high are like a toothpick next to an elephant. People understand it all and start running, and the firefighters are yelling to us, Run! We run down the street to the car [...]. The girls are there, they guy isn't. I call him and yell for him to get back to the car. Through the howling of the wind, he yells something about extinguishing the lower fire. What lower fire when so many burning branches [...] are falling down onto the houses because of the crazy fire up above. In general, it feels like hell all around. We understand that we might die ourselves if we wait for the guy and decide to ride further away from [the village]. We drive off, call him again - he has managed to jump onto a bus. There was a bus in the village and there were calls for everyone to evacuate. When we leave, a field and fences on our left are already on fire, right by the road. We understand that this is the end of [Verkhnyaya Vereya]. [...]


LJ user vollove's post continues with an account of a similarly horrifying experience in another village, Borkovka:

[...] We run towards the cars. Incredibly difficult to breathe. I feel like lying down. Total dumbness comes over me, from the lack of oxygen. I make myself run to the car. It's strange around. Can't see a thing. Gray darkness and crazy wind that blows you off your feet. Burning branches and cinders are falling from above. [...] There's more oxygen inside the car than outside, and I manage to catch my breath. [...]

In another post, LJ user vollove re-posts somebody else's video shot from inside a car in the village of Tamboles, also near Vyksa in Nizhny Novgorod region. The video has had over 170,650 views so far. People in the car are swearing profusely as they try to escape from the fire, and LJ user vollove comments (RUS) that he had a similar experience on his way out of Borkovka - and was using the same language then:

Photos, video footage and written reports from the burning and burned down villages make one think about wartime chaos and destruction. LJ user vollove posted photos and wrote this (RUS) about his visit to Tamboles, the village featured in the video above, and about an encounter with one of the volunteers there:

The man is a former officer, says that he saw nothing like this [during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh], only in [Chechnya]. But, he says, there was aimed bombing there, while here... They were rushing back and forth down the streets, extinguishing lower fires here and there [...]. [...] The fire was jumping over houses and streets, hitting somewhat selectively. That is, we saw a burned down stone home, and next to it an undamaged wooden barn. He was praising those few firefighting crews that were there. Told us how he called the [local] administration, asking them to bring some food for the firefighters, and they were cursing him, told him to manage on their own. He asked us to drive around, take photos and post them on the web. [...] The scene looks surreal, as if there had been bombing there indeed.

This is how LJ user igorpodgorny explains (RUS) the poor emergency response to the fire catastrophe:

[...] In the recent years [regional, not federal, authorities] are responsible for fighting the fires, and that's why prompt exchange of resources and tools [between regions] is no longer possible (even though the fires do not recognize any administrative borders). Because of the organizational chaos and minuscule financing, the areas affected by the fires continue to grow. In the recent years, the state has been spending only about 1 ruble [$0.03] a year per one hectare of forest. For the same purpose, the United States is spending 100 times as much - over $4 a year.

Here's a short video of what's left of the aforementioned Borkovka village, posted by YouTube user bellyiup:

And here's some footage of the burned down barracks in the village of Mirnyi, by the same YouTube user bellyiup:

LJ user doctor-joy writes that his boss has just returned from the village of Kriusha in Ryazan region, where his relatives used to live, and told him this about the firefighting fiasco there:

[...] According to eyewitnesses, the firefighters arrived without water, asked where they could find water, took it once from there, then the place where there was water was cut off by the fire, and then everything was burning like gunpowder. Only a few buildings remained intact, the fire passed them by via the forest.

LJ user doctor-joy also posted this YouTube video (as YouTube user Pojarnet) of a car ride through the fires in the village of Kriusha, commenting: "On TV and internet they say that the fire has been extinguished, while this is what it looks like in reality!!! People aren't getting help!"

LJ user igorkomarov posted a photo report (RUS) of the joint firefighting efforts in the villages of Belgorod region. Here's some of what he wrote (RUS):

[...] A negative factor in this situation was that on the same day a column of modern firetrucks moved out of [Belgorod, the region's capital] to extinguish fires in Moscow region. [...]


We ran out of water and rushed to the river. But at this point a local woman brought out a herd of cows into the middle of the road. In general, it was hard to ignore the [selfish] position of the villagers - my house is on the edge, let the neighbor's house burn down [I don't care what happens to anyone but myself].

Local internet forums are bursting with discussions of the fires and information on how to help those who have lost their homes and other property. On LiveJournal, at least two communities (RUS) have been set up recently: pozar_ru and emercommunity.

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