ULAN-UDE, RUSSIA — Half a world away from the wildfires that have devastated the Southwestern United States this summer, Andrey Borodin was waging his own battle against the elements, directing a team of a dozen volunteers blasting water into the smoldering Siberian soil. The cloying stench of burning peat filled the air. His team, ankle-deep in the muck, methodically flipped mounds of soggy earth with shovels, occasionally batting out open flames. Nearby stood a forest of burnt birch.
It was a taste of what will be another Herculean effort to contain Siberia’s vast wildfires this year. A loose partnership of hundreds of emergency workers, smoke jumpers and villagers are defending a vast territory of largely impenetrable evergreen forest, the legendary Siberian taiga, along Lake Baikal. And as the fire season here grows longer, hotter and drier by the year, Borodin hopes that conditions will persuade officials to accept and expand a volunteer movement that they have never quite embraced.
“For years, the government had said, ‘We’ll take care of you; stay at home, and we will handle everything,’ and people learned to be inert,” said Borodin, a former tourism official and founder of a volunteer group called Baikal SOS, as he bumped down a dirt lane in a minibus that resembled a giant toolbox with wheels. “But that started to change last year, when people saw that Baikal and the cities were filled with smoke and there was no information. Nothing about what they could do to help.”
The Russian government has a long history of ambivalence toward unofficial volunteer groups and other forms of self-organization, but record fires and choking smog in 2015 brought out hundreds of volunteers in Buryatia, Irkutsk and elsewhere in Siberia. Twenty-nine people were killed that April in wild grassfires in the region of Khakassia, prompting several visits by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a ban on the burning of wild grass, a Russian agricultural tradition that causes the vast majority of wildfires in the country.
Forestry and emergency officials say the fires are smaller this year. But Greenpeace Russia pointed to satellite data earlier this month showing that forest fires covered more than 8.5 million acres of Russian land, accusing government officials of underreporting the fires by as much as 80 percent. Much of it was unrecorded because it was located in “zones of control,” areas of forest that are remote enough that they are deemed low-priority for firefighters and not included in official figures. Greenpeace said that the Forestry Ministry underreported the fires to show that the situation was under control.
But temperatures are rising again in Buryatia, where more than 100,000 hectares — or 250,000 acres — have already burned, according to the official count, and the region is under a state of emergency until the end of the fire season in October.
“The authorities assured us that they’d learned their lesson from last year, everything would be normal and there won’t be any need for volunteers,” said Borodin. “But when the fires flared after the May 9 celebrations, we had to call in parachutists from other regions.”
Earlier this week, Buryatia’s parliament issued an official call for quick-response teams of volunteer firefighters. The professionals are good, Borodin said, “but they’re also very expensive.”
In a period of economic crisis and budget deficits, the region owes $3,660,000 to firefighters for last year’s work and has asked Moscow to cover the debt.
“If we had the money, we could come early to the fires and put them out,” he explained, noting that at the moment they have just enough for gas, a few vans for off-road travel, and some donated fire hoses. “But once it’s hundreds of hectares and the wind is blowing, you have less of a chance.”
Officials, activists and academics here largely agreed that the fires are growing worse because of the environment. Oleg Anenkhonov, a botanist at Buryatia’s Institute of General and Experimental Biology, said that he has charted lakes drying up and unusual migration patterns among animals as temperatures slowly rise in the region.
“We see real change in the climate here, and that is having a sizable influence on the growth of forest fires in recent years,” he said.
The handling of last year’s fires has sparked a bureaucratic battle. While Russia’s well-funded and generally well-regarded Emergencies Ministry is responsible for protecting population centers, protection of the region’s forests falls to both the regions and the federal forestry agency, which regularly accuse one another of negligence.
Buryatia’s parliament has fired two regional heads from the Forestry Agency in the past year for “failing to manage their tasks.” When an official from the agency said in a report that it was “100 percent ready” to deal with the fires this year, a senator from Buryatia exclaimed: “What is this nonsense?”
The Forestry Agency unleashed a barrage of criticism at the regions on Thursday. “Irkutsk and Buryatia are not taking the necessary steps to organize the fight against forest fires,” the Forestry Agency said. “Despite the complicated situation, an extremely low level of action and investment has been noted.”
The Forestry Agency, which oversees teams of highly skilled smokejumpers and paid firefighters, runs a lean operation. Asked about the main challenges for the job, Alexandra Yegorova, a spokeswoman in Buryatia, said that the region was over 80 percent taiga with high winds.
“There is not enough money, and there are not enough people,” she said.
In neighboring Irkutsk region, Alexander Deev, a roof salesman who founded a volunteer firefighting organization called Squad 15.08, was patrolling for forest fires on the outskirts of the city on a recent afternoon.
“We don’t want to say that we’re unhappy with what the government's performance,” he said when asked about volunteering. “We think that they are doing a good job; we support the government and just want to help.”
Deev, like Borodin, began traveling to fight fires during summer 2015 (his organization, Squad 15.08, is named for the first day that they traveled on patrol, Aug. 15). When the fires were at their peak, more than 120 volunteers had traveled into the forest with them.
For the past year, he had worked his relationships with local emergency officials so that they would call him when they needed extra manpower. It had been difficult to be taken seriously, he admitted. And joining training sessions conducted by Greenpeace in Irkutsk had also caused some concerns, he said, because of the organization’s history of run-ins with Russian law enforcement.
After half an hour on patrol, the call from the emergency ministry came in. Deev’s voice dropped an octave and adopted a martial edge as he told an official he would be ready to travel the next morning.
“First call of the summer!” he exclaimed giddily once off the phone, and set to rallying support for the weekend trip. Pickup trucks and jeeps were allotted. Close to a dozen volunteers were told to bring sleeping bags and canned meat called tushenka, eating utensils and plenty of bug spray.
But in the interest of appearing professional, it was thought better not to bring a Western reporter.
“I have received signals from influential people that it would be bad for me to have anything to do with you,” he said by phone that evening, and apologized. He would not say who had spoken with him.