A volunteer firefighter tries to put out a fire near Moscow. Photo by Anna Baskakov.
Massive wildfires have set ablaze vast swaths of Russian countryside in a devastating repeat of the fires that ravaged the Moscow area last summer. Once again, Russian authorities have failed to put out or even contain the deadly inferno, leaving ordinary citizens to take up fighting the fires.
Over a dozen fires in easternmost Russia were put out in the last week alone, but this wasn’t solely thanks to firefighters. Thousands of volunteers have mobilised to help battle the blazes. They’re trying to prevent the fires from wreaking as much havoc as last year, when massive fires killed 62 people, destroyed thousands of homes and threatened several military nuclear facilities.
To do this, volunteers say they need better training and equipment.
Wildfires in the Moscow region. Photo courtesy of Anna Baskakova.

“Russia’s volunteer firefighters battle the blazes at their own expense, with no training of any sort”

Anna Baskakova, from Moscow, is a fine arts expert and volunteer firefighter.
Most of the wildfires in Russia occur because people have the bad habit of burning dried grass. Many Russians believe that if you burn last year’s grass in the springtime, it will grow back healthier. So paradoxically, it’s often the locals who are responsible for their own forest fires. The burning often kindles peat lands in drained swamps, and the peat begins smouldering underground as the fire spreads, invisible at first.
Because of the decline in Russian agriculture, many fields are not well-mowed. In southern Russia, where fields are covered with reeds up to seven metres high, the fires are especially dangerous. In their early stages, a well-equipped and organised force could put them out relatively easily (thanks to the numerous natural springs and ditches in the area), but if nothing is done early on, 10- to 15-metre-high walls of flame start rolling through the countryside, destroying everything along their way. It is virtually impossible to fight this, even with adequate protective gear and equipment.
Photo by Anna Baskakova.
"It is not always clear who is responsible for putting out the blaze"
Unfortunately, because of unnecessarily intricate safety laws, it is not always clear who is responsible for putting out the blaze. The minister of emergency situations says his teams are only responsible for fires in inhabited areas. Forest rangers are not allowed to fight fires beyond the zones they directly manage. There is no national, centralised firefighting agency that could coordinate emergency efforts throughout the country.
This is why volunteer firefighters are often left to struggle against fires. The teams have existed in Russia for quite some time, although they gained prominence after the summer 2010 fires. They battle the blazes at their own expense, with no training or insurance of any sort. They train on weekends and during holidays. Many people view them as eccentrics. Some are based in Moscow and are members of Greenpeace Russia, but others are just citizens concerned about their community’s safety. If they locate a fire, they may try to put it out on their own, but if they see that it’s out of control they alert the local authorities.
Photo by Anna Baskakova.
 "They have to obey an employer even though they are not being paid"
To make matters worse for volunteer firefighters, they have no official status or rights, unlike their counterparts in the United States and many European countries. A new law on volunteer firefighting requires that the groups report to the ministry of emergency situations, even though they are paying for their own material, their driver, their accountant, etc. Basically, they have to obey an employer even though they are not being paid. Bigger problems may arise in 2012, when volunteers will have to get a licence to fight fires, as it’s almost impossible for anybody but official government structures to obtain a licence.”
Photo : Anna Baskakova.
All the photos below were taken in the Astrakhan Nature Reserve. They were posted by volunteer firefighters on this site.
Photos by N.A. Litvinova.
Photo by G.A. Zamyatina.
Post written with journalist Ostap Karmodi.