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‘Every summer the forest burns’ Photographer Denis Sinyakov captures the battle against Siberia’s devastating wildfires

Source: Meduza

Catastrophic wildfires are still sweeping Russia’s Siberian region of Yakutia. The authorities declared an “interregional state of emergency” on Saturday, August 13. According to the Federal Agency for Forestry (Rosleskhoz), since the start of 2021, fires have destroyed more than seven million hectares (about 17.3 million acres) of forest — an area the size of Ireland or Georgia. NASA said that at the beginning of August, smoke from Yakutia’s wildfires reached the North Pole. Earlier this month, photographer Denis Sinyakov spent several days in Yakutia’s Ust-Aldansky District alongside the people who are charged with fighting the forest fires — the smokejumpers from the Aerial Forest Protection Service (Avialesokhrana). Meduza shares Denis Sinyakov’s photographs and recollections here. 

Paratroopers from the Aerial Forest Protection Service (Avialesokhrana), who are currently fighting wildfires in Yakutia, are often upset by the media coverage of their work. They don’t understand why the reports are so scarce and inaccurate. They’re often confused with Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS), or some other agency that has nothing to do with them.

But the wildfires in Siberia aren’t being extinguished by firefighters in red trucks from the emergencies ministry. Indeed, Avialesokhrana is a branch of the Russian Federal Forest Service, which is, in turn, part of Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. The Avialesokhrana’s observer pilots carry out flights in helicopters and reconnaissance planes, and are responsible for detecting and searching for fires, dropping smokejumpers into the fire sites, and handling their supplies and relocation.

If a fire breaks out in an area that’s difficult to reach by car, an Avialesokhrana smokejumper team will parachute directly into the location of the blaze. These specially trained firefighters usually work in groups of eight to twelve people. Their task is to contain the flames.

Putting out wildfires also looks different from how you imagine it. A firefighter’s weapons include a shovel, an axe, a chainsaw, and an 18-liter backpack fire pump. It’s physical labor. And the most effective means of fighting a fire is practically the same all over the world. You need shovels to clear a strip of forest floor down to a “fireline” of mineral soil, and a fire extinguisher to bring down the flames and lower the burn temperature. A backpack fire pump can’t put out a large blaze, but neither can a helicopter — the water being dumped from above is also aimed at lowering the burn temperature. 

If there’s a settlement nearby that can supply a tractor with a plough, then it’s be used to dig a ring around the fire; the fireline gets wider and everything moves faster. If there’s no tractor, the Avialesokhrana paratroopers dig a line with shovels to hold back the flames. When the fire reaches the strip of mineral soil it can’t roll across: the line has been cleared of combustible materials. But since there’s often wind blowing, and the fireline may not be wide enough, the firefighters also create a “backfire” — setting fire to the grass or the forest floor near the line in such a way that this man-made fire spreads towards the oncoming flames. When they meet, it creates a burnt buffer zone 15 meters (49 feet) wide from the fireline.

The paratroopers then work to “guard” this strip — trees fall during forest fires, including into the area of the fireline; these need to be cut up using chainsaws to clear the strip, otherwise, fire on the tree trunk can cross the line and spread even further. After making sure that the blaze at this site has been put out, the paratroopers report it and a helicopter flies in to pick them up, and transfers them to another location.

From May to October teams of six to twelve smokejumpers work in the taiga nearly seven days a week. Helicopters drop off food and fuel for generators, as well as chainsaws and motorized water pumps. The firefighters land in the direct vicinity of the wildfire and that’s where they set up camp: with tents and mini-kitchens, it looks like a regular forestry campsite.

According to regulatory standards, their working day is eight to ten hours long. But the paratroopers’ task is to contain the flames and they can’t ask the fire to wait, so of course they often work overtime. Sometimes they start at 8:00 a.m. and finish at noon the next day. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. The firefighters are forbidden from working at night, but sometimes they break this rule: working at night is more comfortable, it’s not so hot.

Most of the firefighters are romantics, some of their parents are gamekeepers, they grew up in the forest and love it. Most of them are worried about what’s happening, they advocate for saving the forests. At the same time, the salaries paid to firefighters in the summer are rather good money for Yakutia.

There aren’t enough hands in Yakutia, so there are many Avialesokhrana paratroopers working there now who were mobilized from other parts of Russia. Since there are so many wildfires this year, the firefighters are mainly focused on protecting villages where the fires are approaching. In early August, forest fires were closing in on the rural village of Kylayy. When I was there, the firefighters were living in a local school and volunteers were helping them. This village eventually fought off the fire.

Avialesokhrana’s smokejumpers are hurt by the fact that they’re taking on the lion’s share of the work to put out the wildfires, and local residents think that this is all being done by the Emergency Situations Ministry. It’s also frustrating when they create a “backfire” and the locals see it as a bad thing. Many uninformed people accuse the firefighters of starting fires instead of putting them out, and they’re often dissatisfied with their work in general. Many don’t see the paratroopers as firefighters, because they’re ordinary guys — they don’t have red fire trucks or look like the firemen in Hollywood films.

Most of these guys working in the forest don’t dwell on figuring out the causes of the wildfires. It’s simple: every summer the forest burns and they’re tasked with putting it out — so they do. 

Photographs by Denis Sinyakov

Interview by Irina Kravtsova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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