Who puts out wildfires?
Responsibility for wildfire management in Russia depends on where the fire is located. There is territory known as the Forest Fund
, which represents all forested land under the control of the federal government. Most of the Forest Fund is managed by Rosleskhoz, Russia’s Federal Agency for Forestry, which maintains a fleet of aircraft and employs about 2,000 wildfire responders. However, putting out wildfires is largely the responsibility of regional authorities. The federal government allocates funds to regions in the form of subventions, as well as from the environment national project. When wildfires reach a major scale, additional federal funding can be unlocked. In 2022, the Russian government allocated R14 bln to fighting wildfires
Besides the Forest Fund, there are national parks and reserves. They are under the control of the Ministry of Natural Resources, whose forest rangers are tasked with handling wildfires. There are also forests in and around military sites – there the Ministry of Defense is responsible for putting out fires, though the total size of these lands is small.
One common misconception about wildfire management in Russia is the role of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS). Sensational media coverage often shows MChS aircraft dumping water over burning forests. In addition, the recently appointed head of the MChS, Alexander Kurenkov, openly criticized regional governors
for failing to effectively respond to the fires. But as Kuksin explains, this is mostly PR: “The MChS basically doesn’t have anything to do with fighting wildfires besides when a state of emergency is declared and those cases when people or residential areas are directly threatened,” says Kuksin. In fact, according to WWF, the MChS puts out only around 10% of forest fires
, while the rest are dealt with by regional governments, forest ranger units and landowners.Problems with fighting wildfires
In 2015, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources issued an order that established so-called wildfire “control zones.” In these zones, regional authorities aren’t required to put out a forest fire if there is no direct threat to residential areas or economically important infrastructure, as well as in cases when the estimated costs of putting out a fire exceed the predicted damage that it may cause. Some experts consider the control zones a reasonable policy innovation
, since putting out all wildfires is an impossible task. In practice, authorities have always made cost estimates when prioritizing which wildfires to tackle. However, the control zones are not always clearly defined. Sometimes the areas where wildfires aren’t required to be put out include commercial forests, populated areas and even public infrastructure.
Each year the boundaries of the zones are revised and improved, but the resources to put out wildfires even outside the control zones are still insufficient. “The amount of money the federal government sends to regions for fighting wildfires is about 10 times less than what is really needed,” says Kuksin. “We really need more helicopters and planes for moving around responders and volunteers. There just isn’t enough. And really, the main problem is a shortage of people.” A lack of professionally trained firefighters means that wildfire response usually relies on volunteers. Likewise, when there aren’t enough hands in a region experiencing fires, Rosleskhoz often mobilizes its paratroopers from other parts of Russia. Using volunteers is not unique to Russia – many countries can’t do without the support of volunteer groups to deal with wildfires. However, as Kuksin explains, the number of volunteer units is in reality much smaller than it might seem on paper. “It’s also gotten more difficult to recruit people this year because of the economic and political situations,” he says.
Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.For further reading‘Every summer the forest burns’ Photographer Denis Sinyakov captures the battle against Siberia’s devastating wildfiresWildfires in Russia: Will war in Ukraine limit firefighting response?