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Forest Firest Choke Russia's Far East

by Andrei Ivanov and Judith Perera

3,750,000 acres wiped out
(IPS) MOSCOW -- In a much less widely reported re-run of last autumn's Indonesian forest fires, which blanketed major Asian cities in a pall of acrid, choking smoke, a similar crisis is overtaking a corner of Russia's remote Far Eastern provinces.

For three months a series of forest fires in Khabarovsk Krai (region) have wiped out 3,750,000 acres of forest, destroying its unique natural environment as well as much needed local income.

Winter's icy grip will soon shut the blazes down, but by then the damage will have been done. The equivalent of 15 million cubic meters of commercial timber has been lost at an estimated cost of 450 million rubles ($26.9 million) in Khabarovsk alone.

But the new threat comes from the smoke thrown up by the unstoppable blazes. A huge pall of smoke hangs over Khabarovsk city, close to the Chinese border and only about 200 miles from the Sea of Japan. People in villages over 600 miles away claim to smell it.

So far the Khabarovsk authorities have spent more than 40 million rubles on fighting the fires without financial assistance from the federal government.

Losses across the entire Siberian and Far East could exceed $31.5 billion
A resolution passed by parliament in Moscow on Oct.16, urging the government to take "immediate measures to provide prompt material and financial aid to the region" has been ignored, and only heavy rainfall in the past week has brought some relief.

"The situation here increasingly seems like a Chernobyl disaster," says Alexander Samoiloff, a lawyer from Khabarovsk.

For months major cities including Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-Na-Amure and Amursk have lived under cover of dense smoke.

In Khabarovsk air pollutants are three times the maximum permissible level and in Komsomolsk they are five times higher.

Khabarovsk Krai Governor Victor Ishayev says all appeals for aid have been politely rejected by federal government, which is totally preoccupied with the wider economic crisis. Instead of aid, Moscow offered to Khabarovsk high interest loans.

Khabarovsk Krai Chief Forester Victor Pominov explains that they have been unable to extinguish fires with their local forces. Now their main concern is to protect settlements.

At the beginning of September rains improved the situation briefly, but an early October dry 'indian summer' saw fires spread rapidly from Khabarovsk over the region border to Maritime Territory and Sakhalin Island, covering the entire region with dense smoke.

"Residents of Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk and Amursk began to panic," says Samoiloff. Air flights and river ship navigation stopped. Traffic police asked cars to drive with lights on, as visibility was down to 100 meters. In Amursk the schools closed and children were told to stay at home."

Khabarovsk Sanitary Inspection Chief Rita Liberova explains that in the summer the smoke was from burned trees, but now it is from burning dry grass, leaves and garbage.

"This kind of smoke contains high levels of dangerous components. Many people are suffering from asphyxia and chronic respiratory problems," she says.

"We can monitor air content only in Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk.

Unfortunately, we lack the necessary equipment in other areas. The content of (carbon dioxide) CO2 exceed 14 times the allowed norm, and the air also contains high concentration of other dangerous gases, dust and ash.

"We advise people, especially old people, children, people who suffer respiratory and cardio-vascular illness to stay inside.

Those who have to go out should use wet masks and we suggest that people hang wet linen in their rooms because it will absorb dangerous substances.

"It is important to avoid hard physical work, especially outside. If possible, people should eat more fruits and vegetables."

Khabarovsk's Special Emergency Commission has banned fishing and hunting trips. The one positive thing to come out of the disaster is that the traffic police report a fall in the number of road accidents because cars are driving slowly with their lights on.

Greenpeace Russia estimates that total material losses across the entire Siberian and Far East could exceed $31.5 billion by the final reckoning.

But the fires have wider implications. The Siberian taiga covers more than two million square kilometers and represents nearly a quarter of the earth's timber reserves.

It is a vital source of oxygen for the entire globe. However, the fires have produced an estimated 50 million tonnes of toxic carbon gases this year. The taiga also provides a refuge for endangered animals including tigers, bears, and birds.

To escape the blaze, many animals have fled into the cities.

Residents in one Khabarovsk building found a brown bear in their lobby. The Sikhote-Alin wildlife sanctuary, one of the main habitats of the Amur tiger, is under threat from two fires raging in the area which have destroyed some 4,000 of the reserve's 340,000 hectare area.

Protection efforts had stabilized the tiger population at more than 400, but the fires are destroying traditional habitats.

"This means they will move closer to towns where they inevitably will be killed by poachers," says Yevgeny Usov of Greenpeace Russia.

In addition, ashes falling into Sakhalin rivers will make it difficult for salmon to spawn, which could affect the red caviar industry on which the region depends.

Two-thirds of the forest on Sakhalin island destroyed
With the federal government unable to help, a team of United Nations experts was called in. After visiting Sakhalin Island and Khabarovsk earlier this month, they described the situation as a global catastrophe.

The fires "bear consequences not only for the ecosystem of frontier countries with Russia but also for a large part of the Northern Hemisphere," the experts' statement concluded.

There has been some international assistance. Japan pledged $40,000 in humanitarian aid, while foreign oil firms working on Sakhalin have promised $50,000.

Ultimately the grip of winter will put an end to the fires more effectively than human hand could ever do. But every day that will pass before the rains turn to blanketing snow and the icy nights snuff out the smoldering woods, causes almost irreparable damage to the region's economy and its natural environment.

"Some two-thirds of the forest on Sakhalin island have been destroyed. Sakhalin's forest will disappear soon," warns Usov.

And the great likelihood is that the problem will simply repeat itself next year if funds are not found for prevention methods and rapid response fire fighting teams.

Forest fires will always be difficult to control in this region because there are few roads or towns, little equipment, and scarce funds. International efforts will be necessary to stop the disaster being repeated in 1999.

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Albion Monitor November 9, 1998 (

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