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Huge fires char Russian forests

4.6 million acres burning; volunteers pitch in to halt flames by The Associated. Press | July 28, 2021 at 4:38 a.m.
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)

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.

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 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 [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.

Yakutia hit hard

The hardest-hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 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.

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.

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.

Information for this article was contributed by Jim Heintz of The 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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Albert Nogovitsin)
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. (AP Photo/Albert Nogovitsin)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)
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. (AP Photo/Ivan Nikiforov)

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