Russia risks repeat of wildfire crisis: NGO

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Russia is on track to experience another summer of catastrophic wildfires due to a lack of prevention measures and misdirected state funds, an environmental group warned on Tuesday.

Last year's record heatwave and drought escalated wildfires in central Russia out of control, killing dozens, threatening military and nuclear facilities, and causing a health crisis in Moscow with acrid smoke.

As seasonal fires begin to rage in Siberia and other regions, there are few signs that Russia has the adequate measures in place to avoid a repeat of 2010, said Russian Greenpeace firefighting programme chief Grigory Kuksin

And the legal amendments introduced since last summer have actually made matters worse, he added.

"There has been substantial money allocated for purchasing firefighting equipment, but it is used to buy heavy equipment for large fires that cannot be used for preventing fires when they start," Kuksin told AFP.

"Dead trees left over from last year's fires have not been cleared, and will make fires worse," he said. "And wildfire professionals called in to help the emergency ministry last year have never been paid for their work."

"I don't see any change for the better, since last summer things have gotten worse" and new norms are merely cosmetic, making it harder to pin responsibility to specific officials, he said.

Russia's emergency ministry admitted last week that there was not enough equipment or money to put out forest fires, and that their monitoring was insufficient.

Most wildfires in Russia start from people's careless handling of fire or intentional burning dry grass, according to officials.

Several arsonists are currently facing three years in prison for allegedly starting a fire that nearly burned down two villages in the Siberian region of Novosibirsk, the regional emergency ministry said Tuesday.

"Despite the restriction, people continue burning grass," the ministry's deputy head Andrei Puzyrev was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Although spring has been late in coming to the Moscow region, fires are likely to start in early May as picnickers go to the countryside during the string of May holidays, said Kuksin.

Last week, Moscow region Governor Boris Gromov issued a decree restricting people's access to forests after May 1, Kommersant reported.

© 2011 AFP

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