Georgians Blame Russia for Fires in Beloved Preserve

Damage from one of at least six fires reported Aug. 15 that burned for 24 days in and around Georgia's popular Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park.
Damage from one of at least six fires reported Aug. 15 that burned for 24 days in and around Georgia's popular Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. (By Temo Bardzimashvili For The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TSAGVERI, Georgia -- Around noon on Aug. 15, hours before his president signed a cease-fire agreement ending the war with Russia, Viktor Aksashvili saw a camouflage-painted helicopter in the sky. "I saw it coming from Borjomi," a nearby town, said Aksashvili, 58, a school bus driver. "It went up the valley, turned around, and went back."

Later that day, the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park started getting reports of at least six forest fires in and around the 210,000-acre nature preserve, one of Georgia's biggest and best-known.

Villagers rushed to cut down trees and create a firewall between their homes and the approaching flames. No villages were burned, but the mountainous area, southwest of Gori, a city then occupied by Russian forces, was hard for firetrucks to reach.

Whipped by hot winds, the fires burned for 24 days, destroying more than 2,500 acres of old-growth forest, tainting drinking water in some villages and threatening the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism.

Police say they do not yet know how the fires started. The area has no clear military targets and is not near Russian-occupied areas. Villagers reported seeing a helicopter, possibly the one seen by Aksashvili, later that day, and government officials said some villagers saw unidentified "burning things" dropping from the aircraft.

But as for who started the fires, in the minds of many Georgians, there is no question: the Russians.

"I believe that yes, they did it," said Revaz Enukidze, head of the department of sustainable development in Georgia's Environment Ministry. The purpose? "To make as much as possible the economic and moral damage before the cease-fire."

In the end, about 370 acres of the park burned, plus an additional 2,200 acres of a neighboring buffer zone. A government commission has been formed to investigate the causes and assess the damage, and Enukidze said he hopes international organizations will participate.

Telephone calls and e-mails by a reporter to Russian spokesmen seeking comment elicited no response.

Nana Janashia, executive director of the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network, said it was too early to put a price tag on the damage. Park officials say the fires came during their best season in years and set them back significantly. The park's director, Toma Dekanoidze, estimated the cost to the economy could be as high as $700 million, including lost business for hotels and restaurants, and for local villagers who sell their produce, offer lodgings and work as hiking and horseback guides for tourists.

To Georgians watching television footage of the smoke-covered mountains, the harm goes far beyond the economic. Borjomi is their Adirondacks, home to the country's famed eponymous mineral water, a spa resort whose pine-infused air is considered restorative -- and not just by Georgians. It was a popular vacation spot for the Russian nobility and the Soviet elite; Czar Nicholas II's brother had an opulent country house here, which was later used by the dictator Joseph Stalin.

All the more reason, Georgians say, for Russians to want to target it.

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