Residents of Russian village mobilise to defend their home from forest fires

Videos on social networks show residents of the village of Nesteniarvi, in the northwest of Russia, fighting a forest fire.
Videos on social networks show residents of the village of Nesteniarvi, in the northwest of Russia, fighting a forest fire. © Screenshots from videos published on the social media Vkontakte

Residents of the village of Naisteniarvi in northwestern Russia have been battling against forest fires ravaging their region since July 14, providing essential aid to emergency personnel who were unable to control the fires on their own.


Footage from the fires shows a man standing in a burning forest, trying to put out the blaze by hitting it with a shovel. 

"There’s no one [to help]! It’s just the three of us,” cries the man who filmed the video on July 19, just a few kilometres from the village of Naisteniarvi in the Russian Republic of Karelia. The video was also picked up by several Russian media outlets.

Anton Lukashevich filmed this video on July 19.

The first fires broke out on July 14, close to this village, which is home to about a thousand people and located 500 kilometres north of St. Petersburg. Particularly intense forest fires have been affecting several regions of Russia, a pattern that has continued from previous years. 

'If the locals hadn’t been there to help, I don’t know what would have happened'

The video was filmed by 22-year-old Anton Lukashevich. He posted it on social media in an attempt to alert firefighters about the terrifying situation in his community.  

Lukashevich, a student who grew up in Naisteniarvi, was home from college in Moscow for the summer holiday when the fires broke out. Faced with the size of the fires and a lack of help from emergency personnel, the villagers set about fighting the fires on their own:

I saw on [the social media network] Vkontakte that they were urgently looking for people to help put out the fires. When I arrived, I saw two members of a team from the Ministry of Emergency Situations sitting there. There was a fire engine and, all around, there were local people who had come to help, carrying shovels, buckets and canisters. 

There was smoke everywhere and we were waiting for someone to tell us what to do. […] On the second day, we started to organise ourselves. We bought all of the watering cans available in the store and loaded them on trailers, bringing them to the site of the fire.

Anton Lukashevich filmed this video on July 19.

Early on, it was mostly the young people helping out. Then, more people joined in and, soon, everyone was there, including women and children, who, under their parents’ supervision, carried water. There were elderly people there, too. Young people traveled in to help from Petrozavodsk, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some even took vacation to come and help out. 

We are still carrying out patrols. We’ve been filling up water barrels that we’ve placed alongside the road. Rescue services and firefighters have joined in now, too. But the first few days, we were doing this all on our own. 

If we hadn’t sounded the alarm and if locals hadn’t been there to help, I don’t know what would have happened. The locals kept fighting the fire until the very end, even though they were exhausted. They were only sleeping two hours a day and were doing such difficult work. We had to run carrying 20-litre iron buckets in each hand.  My legs are still sore. We have to be incredibly proud of the locals who did so much work with no preparation. 

This video was posted on July 19 in the Vkontakte group used by volunteers who came to fight the forest fires. 

The volunteers also played a crucial role in evacuating the village on July 18. Lukashevich made three round trips in his car to evacuate people before buses came. Around 500 people were evacuated. At least 40 villagers helped fight the forest fires, Lukashevich said. Though the fire is now under control, he is afraid that another drought will result in the fires starting up again. 

On July 23, the governor of the Republic of Karelia thanked firefighters, emergency workers and volunteers for their work fighting the fire. Regional authorities took to social media to post videos showing firefighters working to put out the flames, while also recognising the contribution of volunteers. 

The fires this year in the Republic of Karelia have reached levels not seen for 20 years. An estimated 20,000 hectares have gone up in smoke since January 1, 2021, according to satellite data gathered by Russia’s Federal Agency of Forestry. Forest fires have also swept other regions of Russia, including Siberia and the Russian Far East. Around 10.8 million hectares have burned in Russia since the start of the year, according to Greenpeace.