Russian minister proposes volunteer monitoring of wildfires

Russian emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu proposed on Wednesday to set up networks of “public patrols” around the country to monitor forest fires and other emergency situations.

Wildfires devastated a number of regions in central Russia last summer, prompting the government to take additional measures to prevent the same crisis this year.

“We would like to involve public and veteran organizations in setting up networks of public monitors or public controllers because without total control over what’s happening in our forests we will never be able to provide a timely response to wildfires,” Shoigu said at a meeting with young rescue volunteers.

The minister said “public patrols” would have direct communications channels with the Ministry of Emergency Situations, including via mobile phones and e-mails.

Shoigu said that the proposed measure would sharply increase the effectiveness of firefighting in the country.

According to the minister, over 11,000 towns and rural cooperatives in the countryside could be threatened by wildfires this summer.

Shoigu said last year that the country needed up to a million volunteers to help fight wildfires as Russia’s 250,000 professional firefighters were not enough for a country of 144 million people, covering more than a tenth of the Earth’s land surface.

However, experts say the responsibility for ineffective forest fire fighting lies with the Russian government, and personally with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who disbanded in 2007 the national forestry service that existed in the Soviet Union.

The state forestry service in Soviet times was responsible for forest monitoring, fire prevention and fire-fighting. It employed 80,000 forest rangers whose main job was to monitor the woodlands on a daily basis and put out minor fires before they could grow into major conflagrations.

Under Putin’s Forest Code, the responsibility for forest administration, including fire protection, passed from the federal government to the regions and to the businesses leasing the forest area.

This was done in line with the prevailing ideology of Putin’s government that the state should pull out from non-strategic sectors and leave regulatory functions to market players. Government funding for wildfire prevention measures has been drastically scaled back. Russia currently spends about 3 cents per hectare of woodlands on fire fighting services. In comparison, the United States spends about $4 for the same purpose.

MOSCOW, May 11 (RIA Novosti) 

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