No forest – no problem. Siberian wildfires conceal large-scale forest felling?
The federal center has finally noticed wildfires engulfing Siberia. According to experts, this catastrophe is threatening the entire planet. Medics forecast grim consequences for people's health because of the smoke. However, there is a person calling those "disseminating dramatic information about the fires" "either ignorames or provokers". This refers to Aleksander Uss, Governor of the Krasnoyarsk Krai most affected by the wildfires. The regional head put it straight: there is no point to extinguish these fires. Perhaps, this is because there are no more woodlands there? Or the fires are needed to make money on the felling of charred trees?
The area affected by Siberian wildfires continuously increases. The fire has already destroyed the annual felling volume in Russia. Smoke emanating from the burning taiga has covered the largest cities of Siberia, surmounted the Urals and reached Tatarstan. People joke on social networks that the federal center will pay attention to the problem only when the smoke cloud reaches Moscow. But the wind has changed – and smoke went eastward, clouded Mongolia, and reached Canada and the USA.
According to the regional government, 677.2 thousand ha were engulfed in flames in the Irkutsk region as of August 1, 2019. According to the Aerial Forest Protection Service, some 59 thousand ha of woodlands are burning in Buryatia and the Transbaikal region. But the Krasnoyarsk krai is the ‘champion': 119 wildfires with a total area of 1.091 million ha were registered in the region as of August 1. Since July 31, the fire area has increased by some 30 thousand ha.
The majority of the fires are not extinguished because the federal legislation delegates to regions the right to make decisions with regards to wildfires occurring in so-called "control zones". In 2015, Sergei Donskoy, then-Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, endorsed amendments to the forest fire suppression regulations. Regional commissions for emergency situations now may decide whether it is economically justifiable to extinguish such fires. If a fire does not threaten settlements and enterprises, while the estimated damages do not exceed the fire suppression costs, it is permitted to ignore it. In the Krasnoyarsk krai, the regional commission has ruled that the potential extinguishing costs are higher than the potential damages; as a result, nobody is fighting 93 fires affecting 1.083 million ha of land.
Interestingly, according to the Information Remote Monitoring System of the Federal Forestry Agency, the majority of the fires were discovered when their areas hadn't exceeded a few ha of woodlands. It was pretty simple and not that expensive to extinguish these forest fires at that time. However, in a couple of weeks, the small fires had increased by tens of thousands of times. For instance, this happened with a massive wildfire north of Kodinsk: on July 11, a fire 2 ha in size was discovered; by July 25, its area increased to 67 thousand ha.
The Commission for Emergency Situations of the Krasnoyarsk Krai publishes decisions not to extinguish the fires on a regular basis. The first decision to cease forest fire suppression operations was made on June 17 – at that time, the total area of fires in the region was several dozens of ha. On July 5, the commission decided to cease the extinguishing of 33 fires in the Baikitskoe, Severo-Yeniseiskoe, Tungussko-Chunskoe, and Evenkiiskoe forest districts. The total area of the fires was 836.91 ha. The officials and officers of the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM) estimated the deforestation losses at 4.87 million rubles ($74.6 thousand) – i.e. some 5.5 thousand rubles ($84) per ha, while the total fire suppression costs – at 139.18 million rubles ($2.1 million).
According to the governmental forest trade website, winners of forest tenders pay for clear cuttings some 25 thousand rubles ($383) per ha. This is almost five times higher than the estimated fire damages. So, why were the Krasnoyarsk authorities unwilling to save the expensive forest? The most logical answer is: the trees had existed there only on paper – but in reality, they were felled a long time ago.
Tatiana Davydenko, Chairperson of the Accounts Chamber of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, was the first to say that wildfires are used to conceal illegal cuttings. "If the fires are not suppressed, this is done in somebody's interests. The fires are used to conceal thefts of timber or other criminal activities," – Davydenko believes. The supreme regional auditor had warned in advance about the risk of mass fires in summer. "What is going on now is a crime. This crime is not against the forest or our natural resources. This crime is against the people, against all of us. How long is this going to continue? How long are we going to tolerate this? We had warned about the fires back in December and submitted our instructions, inquiries, and analytical memos to the law enforcement authorities. No result. Hence, this is done in somebody's interests," – Davydenko says in her video address to residents of the Krasnoyarsk krai.
The Chairperson of the Accounts Chamber recommends to pay special attention to the frequent allocation of woodlands for investment projects in the Krasnoyarsk krai. According to the supreme auditor, this is a shady business scheme: "In the framework of such projects, timber processing and forest product plants had to be built. However, there was one condition: the forest was allocated for felling from the very beginning. There were 14 such projects in the Krasnoyarsk krai; three of them are terminated; there are no plants, while the forest has been felled. Eleven projects are still ongoing. They were supposed to invest 147 billion rubles ($2.3 billion) – but invested only 44 billion rubles ($674.1 million). The enterprises were supposed to produce 28 items of production – but produce only seven. The production volume is ridiculously small," – Davydenko explains. Therefore, the auditor concludes that wildfires are used to conceal thefts of timber.
In an interview to TV host Andrei Karaulov, the Chairperson of the Accounts Chamber said that a probe carried out by the auditors has shown that officials are unable to control forest fires. The auditors estimate damages sustained last year due to wildfires at 4 billion rubles ($61.3 million). "In some areas, the fires were not suppressed at all. They had tried – but as a result of their efforts, the fire area has grown from 800 square meters to 15 thousand ha. It took more than a month to extinguish it," – Davydenko said. According to the supreme regional auditor, after the publication of the probe results, she started receiving threats.
On June 7, Davydenko has read messages threatening her at a session of the Legislative Assembly of the Krasnoyarsk Krai. She said that the majority of forest districts procure timber via contractors who cut the forest for "one ruble (¢15) per ha"; as a result, the budget receives fewer taxes. Davydenko criticized the forest trade at an exchange launched by Governor Aleksander Uss. According to the Accounts Chamber, the total value of the timber exported from the region in 2018 was 48 billion rubles ($735.4 million) (including wood shipped to China for 33 billion rubles ($505.6 million)) – while the budget received only 1.9 billion rubles ($29.1 million). "This information is based on the official statistics. The shady economy constitutes over 30%. One-third of the economy is shady. Its scope is truly catastrophic," – the auditor emphasized. Davydenko believes that a conspiracy exists in the forestry sphere.
In response, Yuri Lapshin, Chairman of the Government of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, accused the Chairperson of the Accounts Chamber of "prejudice and incompetence". Sergei Ponomarenko, First Vice Governor of the Krasnoyarsk Krai and Head of the Administrative Office of Aleksander Uss, retaliated against both Davydenko and Karaulov – who has broadcasted the interview with her. Ponomarenko claims that the TV host had allegedly tried to extort 2.4 billion rubles ($36.8 million) from the Governor for non-broadcasting the conversation with Davydenko dedicated to thefts in the forestry industry. At the end of its session, the Legislative Assembly of the Krasnoyarsk Krai controlled by Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia) Party has removed Davydenko from her post for loss of trust. Later, the former supreme auditor said that she was afraid of something worse: "I understood that it is impossible to speak honestly in the Krasnoyarsk Krai – otherwise, they may just lock you up".
The Krasnoyarsk authorities managed to get rid of Davydenko – but apparently, too late. After the bold statements of the supreme auditor, many people have come to the same conclusions. For instance, Ivan Serebryakov, leader of Patrioty Rossii (Patriots of Russia) fraction in the Legislative Assembly of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, decided to look into the suspicious investment projects. The Deputy concluded that Davydenko was right, and the shady scheme really exists: "A piece of forest is allocated to a company under an investment project. There is no enterprise yet, nothing is built – but the forest felling is already ongoing there". Serebryakov does not rule out that such ‘investors' could set the forest on fire: "Local people confirm this. The focuses of fire and locations of investment projects overlap on the map".
The cheap cuttings mentioned by the Accounts Chamber also seem suspicious to Serebryakov: "2.5 million cubic meters of timber are subject to sanitary cuttings in the Krasnoyarsk krai. This is a huge volume. So, what is going on? They fell healthy trees, while sick ones remain intact. Then they sell good tress for one ruble (¢15) per cubic meter. The Accounts Chamber has recently raised the sanitary cutting issue. If a probe shows that sick trees remain in place, while healthy ones are felled – the prosecutor's office would definitely put attention to this matter. And you know what? Fires occur in locations of these sanitary cuttings," – the Deputy notes.
His Moscow colleagues came to the same conclusions. "Forest conservation activists claim that wildfires conceal illegal cuttings – and this seems to be true. Chinese timber merchants are in cahoots with Russian officials and ‘black lumberjacks'; they barbarically destroy the taiga in Siberia and the Russian Far East – and then set the branches and bark on fire. Fire writes off everything!" – Vladimir Pozdnyakov, Deputy of the State Duma, says. Vladimir Burmatov, Head of the Committee for Ecology and Environmental Conservation of the State Duma, notes that, for some odd reason, focuses of forest fires match locations where operations of ‘black lumberjacks' were detected. "It seems that wildfires are just attempts to conceal consequences of illegal felling," – Burmatov believes. According to the Deputy, the following facts support this version: the forest is set on fire simultaneously in several spots, and firefighters discover neatly piled timber around burnt trees. Burmatov has no doubt that the local authorities are aware of the situation: "There are clear ties there; we have reviewed materials received from the law enforcement structures and information provided by volunteers. Such operations would be impossible without the knowledge of the local authorities. I cannot imagine that several hundred logging trucks could pass unnoticed".
Residents of districts affected by wildfires also report on social networks that fires occur on logged lands. To verify such claims, journalists of several Krasnoyarsk TV channels decided to inspect the fire areas and identify the sources of ignition. A correspondent of TVK has visited fires in the Bogychany district and reported vast bare areas in the taiga seen from the helicopter. Firefighters told the journalist that they don't believe in the official cause of the fires – rainless thunderstorms. "I had never seen a rainless thunderstorm here. This is a human factor," – firefighter Sergei Abaev hinted.
Correspondents of TRK7 have also visited Bogychany – and every other local resident complained to them that the forests are set on fire intentionally. People put the main blame on Chinese exporters: "Chinese businessmen burn the taiga. Then they get sanitary cutting permits – and take the forest cheaply". Larisa Mark, a public activist from Bogychany, holds a similar opinion. According to her, there are two main reasons behind the fires. First, such fires are attempts to conceal illegal cuttings. Second, it is difficult to get an undisturbed piece of taiga for felling: "An investment project is required to take a base. Nobody will give you a piece of forest for nothing. When you come to the ministry, they tell you: there are no forests. All of them are allocated for investment projects. Only sanitary cuttings and the water conservation zone remain". Therefore, they set the forest on fire to conduct a sanitary cutting in this area: the charred trees can be processed.
Fire extinguishing expert Sergei Nazarov confirms that large-scale fires may bring significant profits in the future. "The forest is set ablaze, and a crown fire occurs. Only leaves and small branches are destroyed, while the trunks, in fact, remain intact. But the forest ceases to be ‘forest'. It must be felled because it won't reproduce by itself. In other words, after a fire, it can be ‘legitimately' cut down. The technical timber remains intact, it is felled and processed," – Nazarov says. He believes that fires are set not to conceal illegal cuttings – but to gain huge revenues afterwards.
If the forest fires are so profitable, it would be interesting to see who opposes fire extinguishing operations most actively? One of the main opponents of fire suppression is Aleksander Uss, Governor of the Krasnoyarsk Krai. On July 29, when one million ha of taiga were already engulfed in flames, the regional head said that it is pointless and dangerous to fight the fires. "If we have cold weather and snowstorms in winter, nobody suggests to thaw icebergs to make out weather warmer. I believe that this applies to wildfires in the control zone, too. This is a common natural phenomenon; it is pointless and, maybe, even harmful to struggle with it".
The Governor called the situation in the region difficult – but not critical. "Persons disseminating dramatic information about the fires are either ignorames or provokers," – he said. Uss has also noted that it is economically impractical to extinguish fires in the control zone and referred to the world practice: "These areas are mostly hard-to-reach and easily inflammable; fires occur there on an annual basis, not only in our country – but worldwide as well. This is a natural phenomenon. Such hard-to-reach areas exist in Russia, in Canada, in the USA, in Mexico. Normally, such fires are extinguished naturally – by precipitation. Just imagine, the flying time is 2–3 hours. B200 aircraft carries 10 tons of water; this is nothing. But the costs are very high".
However, specialists disagree with the Krasnoyarsk Governor. On August 1, Sergei Abanin, Deputy Head of the All-Russia Center for Emergency Situation Monitoring and Forecast (Antistikhiya) of the EMERCOM said that wildfires have spread so widely in Siberia because of the above stance of the regional authorities. "The fire areas have increased due to the lack of active fire extinguishing measures in the majority of hotspots, including those in remote areas," – Abanin noted. According to Daniyar Safiullin, ex-Head of the Siberian EMERCOM Center disbanded in 2018, forest fires must be suppressed immediately – the remoteness of fire areas does not justify the inaction. Mikhail Klinov, Acting Head of the Federal Forestry Agency, reminded that "there are no prohibitions or restrictions in relation to fire extinguishing operations in the control zone".
On July 31, Dmitry Medvedev arrived at Krasnoyarsk. The Prime Minister has held a conference and said that Governors must suppress wildfires. "This is within the competence of the regional authorities. Each regional head, each Governor must take the situation under personal control: neither say general words nor point a finger up – but personally deal with this matter".
In addition, Medvedev asked the Prosecutor General's Office, Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR), and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation investigate the possibility of deliberate arsons "as a way to conceal illegal timber procurement". ICR Chairman Alexander Bastyrkin immediately ordered to dispatch officers from the central headquarters to regions most affected by the fires. One of their tasks is to verify all versions and identify persons whose actions "have resulted in significant damages to citizens and the state".
On August 1, the ICR has instituted the first criminal case against officials of the Ministry of Forestry of the Krasnoyarsk Krai for neglect of duty. According to the preliminary findings of the investigation, in the period of March 22–August 1, 2019, some regional officials (their names remain undisclosed) hadn't taken required actions to suppress forests fires; as a result, the fires have spread to large areas. Searches are carried out in the Ministry of Forestry of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, Krasnoyarsk Krai Directorate of the EMERCOM, and Forest Fire Center Regional State Autonomous Institution.
But Krasnoyarsk residents are unwilling to wait until the end of the investigation – they already know who is responsible for the situation. On the evening of August 1, city dwellers have held a mass rally and demanded Aleksander Uss to resign. They reminded about the Governor's reaction to complaints brought by residents of flooded Kansk. One of the flood victims had addressed Uss – and he responded: "What do you want to tell me? Push for your rights? I can push, too". Therefore, the protesters came to the streets under the slogan: "We are here to push for our rights". The signs held by the people were mocking other high-profile statements made by the regional head: "Taiga is not an iceberg; we are not cattle; Governor is not Uss", "It is pointless and even harmful to have a Governor like Uss!", etc. Many protesters came to the rally from remote districts to express their opinion about the Governor.
Residents of the region do not want their health to be put at risk for the sake of ‘economic efficiency'. They do not believe that the smoke from the burning taiga is harmless, and it is "pointless and even harmful" to extinguish wildfires. Experts share their opinion. For instance, Grigory Kuksin of Greenpeace warns that the smoke from forest fires may increase the mortality rate from chronic diseases "among elderly people and cause the growth of failing pregnancies". Infectious disease physician, immunologist, and allergologist Georgy Vikulov, Director of the Scientific and Information Center for Viral Infection Prophylactics and Treatment, made an even gloomier forecast: "Dozens of hazardous substances are formed in the course of the combustion process. During large-scale fires, burning particles may penetrate the tissues through the respiratory tract. This may inflict irreversible damages causing fibrosis and pneumosclerosis of lung tissues even among young people". Evgeny Ponomarev, Senior Researcher of Sukachev Institute of Forest, Federal Research Center "Krasnoyarsk Science Center", Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, said that the situation in Krasnoyarsk and Siberia in general is not just a regional problem: "The scope of this problem is not even federal – but global! The destruction of the forests affects not only our region – but the entire planet". The Siberian forests – ‘lungs of the Earth' – are burning, and Uss must understand that it is not pointless to save the taiga.