At least 54 people dead, thousands more homeless, and vast swathes of countryside on fire: Russia’s heatwave left the country suffocating. France 24’s Chris Moore and Sylvain Rousseau travelled to the Moscow region to meet overwhelmed fire crews and stricken villagers – and discovered there was much more than record temperatures behind the blazes.
Towering flames and high-tech fire-fighting equipment dominate the Russian media. But away from the headlines, the daily task of dousing the flames sees local fire brigades engaged in an uphill struggle in the forests and peat bogs. Near the city of Shatura, south-east of Moscow, we meet Alexandr and Sergei. They haven’t had a day off in six weeks. With a team of just 20 firemen, dressed in T-shirts and trainers, they try to keep the flames away from people’s homes. Each small victory is met with a new challenge - with one patch of land finally under control, another invariably erupts into flames.
Nobody’s denying the wildfires have been sparked by soaring temperatures, but the scale of the crisis has prompted many to look harder at why so much of Russia is burning.
Environmentalists have been warning for years about the danger posed by the peat bogs around Moscow. Drained 140 years ago for agriculture, they were developed by the Soviets for fuel. The value of peat plummeted with the discovery of gas in Siberia and the bogs were largely left by the wayside, becoming a giant fire hazard encircling the Russian capital. As specialist Alexandr Tuvolov explained to us, once alight they can burn for months, even when soaked in water or covered in snow. In this long, hot summer, more of them are smouldering than ever.
As Moscow chokes on the smog from the burning countryside, the debate turns political. At the centre of attention are the government’s 2007 forestry reforms. Critics say the privatisation of much of Russia’s great outdoors left the woodlands and peat bogs at the mercy of negligent private contractors hired by corrupt local authorities. But the government says the shake-up replaced a heavily centralised Soviet system with one where the regions gained much-needed control of the forests.
One thing is for certain: 70,000 forest wardens were left out of work by the changes. In the village of Antonovo, just south of Moscow, we meet Maxim. For six years, he and his colleagues were the first line of defence against forest fires. He shows us the woods he used to protect. They’ve burned to a crisp. Back in 2007, when he still worked here, the wardens managed to put a similar blaze out. “They should have kept the old system,” he tells us.
In Kriusha, in the hard-hit Ryazan region, Olga lost everything in 15 minutes. She tells us how the flames came on July 29th, reducing her family home to ashes. Most of the buildings here were razed to the ground. But incredibly, with the outskirts of the village still smouldering, reconstruction crews have already moved in. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised a new house for every Russian who lost their home in the fires by October 25th. It’s a race against time to get roofs back over people’s heads before the harsh winter sets in.
With the causes behind the wildfires now a matter of national debate, and with public anger mounting, Putin is keen to be seen as a man of action.