By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered the army to help firefighters battle wildfires in Siberia but environmentalists said the move was unlikely to produce a quick breakthrough.
Wildfires have spread to around 3 million hectares of mostly remote forest, an area almost the size of Belgium, according to the Federal Forestry Agency, wafting smoke across Siberia and prompting several regions to declare states of emergency.
Environmentalists have dubbed the fires an ecological catastrophe and a petition circulated online by an ecologist from the Siberian city of Tomsk had garnered 824,000 signatures as of Wednesday demanding authorities take tougher action.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday that Putin had been briefed and had ordered the defence ministry to help put out the fires and also to permanently station a firefighting unit in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, one of the affected areas, until further notice.
The defence ministry was sending 10 Ilyushin-76 planes and 10 transport helicopters to the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk equipped with firefighting equipment following the order from the Kremlin, RIA news agency reported.
Firefighters were working to put out forest fires covering 107,000 hectares in Siberia’s Irkutsk and other regions, but other vast blazes raging on 2.9 million hectares are only being monitored, the Federal Forestry Agency said on Wednesday.
Regional authorities have said they do not plan to expend resources on fighting the latter as they are mainly in remote, uninhabited areas and therefore not a direct threat to people.
An activist at Greenpeace in Russia told Echo of Moscow radio station that involving the military in the firefighting effort was not likely to yield a breakthrough and that the move had also come “fairly late.”
“As a rule, bringing in the help of army units is ineffective because soldiers don’t know how to put out fires,” Grigory Kuksin, the Greenpeace activist, was quoted as saying.
“It would have been better to put out these fires in the early stages when it was still possible.”
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mark Heinrich)