Russian wildfires: 'Even the road seemed to be on fire. It was like descending into hell'

The hottest summer in living memory has sparked devastating blazes across Russia

By Shaun Walker
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:06

"All around us, everything was on fire," says Vladimir Anuryev. "Houses, trees, the ground itself – it was all in flames. Even the asphalt on the road seemed to be on fire. It was like descending into hell."

The 73-year-old has lived in Mokhovoye, a village of around 400 people about 100 miles from Moscow, since 1947. But last Thursday, almost everything in the village burnt down in one of the many tragedies across European Russia in the past week, as an unprecedented heatwave caused the worst outbreak of forest fires for decades.

Seven people from Mokhovoye are known to have died, and another seven are missing. Overall, the confirmed death toll from fires in the past week is 48, with more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and no sign of the flames being extinguished for good. Thousands have been left homeless and a state of emergency declared in seven regions.

As the residents of Mokhovoye camped out in a makeshift hostel in the regional centre of Beloomut yesterday, waiting for financial compensation for their lost possessions and property, many of them joined those from other villages hit by the fires in blaming local officials. They say the response to the blazes was uncoordinated and woefully inadequate.

Everyone in Mokhovoye knew something was wrong when they woke up that morning. The acrid smoke that had hung over the village for days was getting thicker, and then hurricane-level winds began to pick up. By 10am, everyone had gathered their passports and important documents, and many of those with their own transport had fled. Residents say they called the police and other emergency services, saying the fires were coming and the village had to be evacuated, but they were told they had to deal with it themselves.

The young people of Mokhovoye gathered into teams with spades, trying to dig trenches that would stop the peat bog fires in their tracks. But it was too late. At six in the evening, when the fire reached the village's apartment blocks and wooden houses, there was nothing left to do but try to escape in any way possible. "By then we weren't even trying to put it out, the only task was to stay alive," said one woman who was waiting in line to collect the first part of her compensation in Beloomut yesterday.

Mr Anuryev got his motorbike and sidecar ready for his escape, but flames engulfed the sidecar as it sat outside the entrance to his apartment block. He managed to detach it, and placed his wife on his lap, speeding away just in time with the village where he has lived for the past six decades burning to the ground behind him. Many others were not so lucky.

In Beloomut, a scruffy town of ramshackle but pretty traditional wooden cottages, the local hairdressing college has been turned into a hostel for those who lost their homes in Mokhovoye and other nearby villages. Psychologists and doctors were also on hand, and Father Vladimir, the local Orthodox priest, paid a visit. "Of course, this was punishment for people's sins," he claimed. "People threw rubbish in the forest; they didn't treat it with respect. God sees everything."

Reminders of the fires that had caused their loss were never far away yesterday. Emergency workers said that the forest fires in the area had been quietened, but peat bog fires still burn underground, sending vast clouds of smoke into the air. Even 100 miles away in Moscow, this made being outside deeply unpleasant, but in Beloomut the smoky haze was unbearable.

The thick smog made breathing difficult and set eyes watering within minutes. Locals were left wheezing and sweating in their homes, as the thermometer hit 38 degrees centigrade. Mokhovoye itself was eerily quiet yesterday. Three apartment blocks still stand; everything else has burnt down. In the nearby village of Kadanok, whole rows of wooden cottages have been reduced to neat squares of debris.

Amid the ruins of Mokhovoye and dozens of other villages across European Russia, the blame game has started. President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday fired several top navy officials after a hangar fire destroyed millions of pounds worth of equipment, and when the fires are finally put out for good, many expect a whole host of sackings at municipal level.

It has not been Mr Medvedev who has taken the lead in tackling the crisis, however, but the powerful prime minister. Vladimir Putin has been featured heavily in news bulletins on Russia's state-controlled television about the fires, to such an extent that some analysts have suggested it may be the start of a PR campaign aimed at smoothing the way for his return to the presidency in 2012.

Viewers have not yet been treated to a shot of him single-handedly taking on a blazing forest with a hose, but several of his trademark well-coordinated visits have been broadcast at length. When last week he visited Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village where all 341 houses were destroyed, angry residents shouted at him that the local authorities had been useless. He attempted to pacify the crowd, even kissing one middle-aged woman on the cheek, and gave a personal guarantee that all their houses would be rebuilt before the winter.

For now, it seems to be working. Most of the anger among those who have lost their homes is directed not at the country's top leadership, but at the local officials who residents say were not there to help them in their hour of need. Currently, there is appreciation for the compensation they have been promised. Indeed, the terms were so generous – they included large payouts and new houses – that rumours surfaced of some Russians burning down their own houses in order to get the rewards. Officials were in Beloomut yesterday to start cash payments of 10,000 roubles (about £200) to everyone who had lost property in the fire, with much larger payments planned for people whose houses were destroyed. Everyone has also been given the option of a new house in Mokhovoye, or a flat in a nearby town.

"Putin said they'll build us all new houses, so it will probably happen," said Vladimir Ivlyev, a 74-year-old Mokhovoye resident. Without insistence from the top, he said, local officials would probably steal the money. Mr Putin has promised to have video cameras installed at all construction sites to ensure that work is completed on time. Mr Ivlyev reserved his ire for the local officials and emergency services. "The thing that angers us is that they are now claiming we asked not to be evacuated," he said. "It's rubbish! We were calling them all day, begging them to send buses. But nothing came. If they'd helped us, everyone would still be alive."

In the regions surrounding Moscow there was little talk of anything else, but it seemed yesterday that lessons may not have been learned. As a representative of the Emergencies Ministry was explaining on local radio how thousands of firefighters, hundreds of fire engines, air reconnaissance, and three special firefighting trains were all being deployed in the region to ensure no new fires broke out, he was interrupted by a farmer from a nearby town who called in to say that he had been calling all the official numbers he could find all day warning of approaching fires and nobody had done anything.

Other commentators have blamed a legal amendment signed off by Mr Putin in 2007, when he was president, for causing the fires. The Forest Code, lobbied for by timber companies, dismantled an early-warning system, drastically cutting the number of people who patrolled the forests ready to give the alert when fires broke out.

Activists also complain that a centralised body to ease the transfer of firefighting equipment from one region to another was disbanded, and that it can now take a week instead of a day to authorise such a move. "Officials seem to have the impression that the forest is a resource to make money from, like oil or gas," said Nikolai Shmatkov, the coordinator for forest policy at the World Wildlife Fund's Russia office.

"While wearing a neatly pressed button-down shirt, [Putin] promised to severely punish bureaucrats who did not properly fight the fires," wrote the liberal columnist Yulia Latynina in The Moscow Times. "In reality, there is really only one bureaucrat who is responsible for this tragedy – Putin himself. After all, it was Putin who signed the Forest Code in 2007."

Destructive wildfires

Greece Infernos in August 2007 killed 67 people and ravaged nearly half a million acres of land in Greece. Firefighters were among the dead as they tried to tackle the multiple blazes that sprang up on a near daily basis. Many Greeks blamed the fires on illegal developers, who they claimed had deliberately set light to forests to clear land and then build villas and homes there.

Weather conditions in Greece mean fires start most years. Three major fires have hit the eastern Aegean Sea island of Samos in the past two weeks alone.

Australia Bushfires tore through the state of Victoria last year killing more than 200 people and leaving 5,000 homeless. Strong winds, a prolonged period of dry weather and temperatures over 40C all contributed to the country's highest ever loss of life from bushfires. Forestry mismanagement was also blamed, with few manmade firebreaks and the failure to clear land allowing the flames to spread rapidly, eventually destroying 1.1 million acres of land.

Some of the fires were started deliberately, prompting the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, to describe them as "mass murder".

USA Nearly 1 million people in California were forced to flee their homes in 2007 as wildfires raged across the state and down to the Mexican border. They were believed to have been started by sparks caused when power lines were blown down. The worst of the damage was felt in San Diego, while residents of the coastal playground for Hollywood's rich, Malibu, packed their belongings as smoke belched out over the Pacific Ocean. Nine people died in the fires.

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