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Russia in flames: A fire line photographer's perspective

Veteran wildfire photographer Mark Thiessen discusses Russia’s worst fire season on record.

By Ford Cochran

In the photo below, locals try to extinguish a forest fire near the village of Dolginino, Russia. As of this week, professional firefighters were combating more than 500 wildfires over a 670-square-mile area in Russia. The toxic smog over Moscow is thought to have doubled the average daily death rate in Russia’s capital to 700. The fires are stoked by an ongoing drought and the worst heat wave in Russian memory.

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See this photo and others of Russia’s 2010 fires in the National Geographic News gallery Wildfire Pictures: Russia Burns, Moscow Chokes.

Photograph from AP

National Geographic staff photographer Mark Thiessen has been on the frontline of Russia’s wildfires, shooting photos for a 2008 story in National Geographic Magazine. In this interview at Nat Geo headquarters in Washington, D.C. this week, Thiessen discusses what Russia’s firefighters must be enduring in the current inferno.

You’ve spent months on the fire line with wildfire fighters, including Russian smokejumpers for a February 2008 story in National Geographic magazine. You understand how wildfires start and spread. Describe what’s happening in Russia.

One thing you have to remember whenever you have a big fire situation: It’s always caused by the weather. The saying is “Mother Nature starts the fires and Mother Nature puts them out,” and that’s very true in this case.

You’ve got unprecedented high temperatures, lower humidities, and high winds. When you have that combination in a fire-prone area, you’re going to get fires, they’re going to be big, and they’re going to be difficult to control.

Mother Nature often starts these fires with high winds, high heat, low humidity, and she will decide when they go out. Once it rains, you get cooler temperatures and high humidity. And eventually winter comes and the snow flies, and that puts them out.

The other interesting thing in Russia, when I was there, my impression was that they do a lot more with less than we’ve got in the United States. We’ve got fire-retardant clothing. They don’t have that. We’ve got lots of customized mechanical equipment to help on the fire line, and they don’t have that. So they’re doing the best they can.

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Talk about tough: These guys throw themselves out of 50-year-old aircraft into burning Siberian forests. (National Geographic Magazine feature, February 2008)

Photo by Mark Thiessen

When you’re in a once-in-100-year event like this heat wave, you’re going to get fires and you’re going to have to deal with that. If you’ve gone for years without big fires, you’ve gotten complacent and maybe you’re not prepared for this. It’s difficult to be prepared. In fact, it’s impossible to be prepared for a once-in-100-year event like this.

So the best you can do is herd the fire around. You can’t put the fires out. People can’t put fires out. All you can do is herd them around.

You’ve got to look at what’s in the fire’s path. You’ve got to look at homes, look at structures, and maybe set some backfires–that’s where you’re lighting fuel at an anchor point and it’s burning toward the fire, thereby giving you a wider fire break. You’re burning all the fuel between you and an approaching fire.

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Unlike city firefighters, who have an ample supply of water at hand, smokejumpers must use water sparingly, as they have to carry it on their backs to the fire line. “Piss pumps”–back-mounted bladders with hand pumps–are used mostly to extinguish the edge of backfires, which are set to deprive a wildfire of its fuel. Photo by Mark Thiessen (National Geographic Magazine feature, February 2008)

You’re also looking at removing fuel. You’re maybe cutting down trees, making a fire break, trying to hold it at a road. So the best you can do is herd it around. You can’t really put it out when you’re in this kind of situation.

The fire is continually moving on, so you’ve got to move with it. But you can’t forget to mop up. Where the fire has been through, that black edge, unless the fire is put out all the way through that, it could reignite again. The winds can change direction, and then you’ve got a fire. Where it was once out, you’ve got a new fire. So that’s very tricky.

You don’t want to be out ahead of the fire, because you don’t want to be in front of it. To fight a fire you want to start at the heal, and then work your way up across the flanks toward the head and try to pinch it off. But in these fires, especially when they’re wind-driven, you end up with hundreds of spot fires out ahead of it, and to try and keep a handle on getting those out can be very dangerous and very tricky.

More than 500 wildfires are reported to be burning in Russia today. How do people begin to contain so many fires at once?

The over 500 fires that are burning across Russia right now are not going to have firefighters on every one of them. What you’re probably going to have is firefighters on the ones that are closest to structures and people and property. Some of them are just going to be left unattended, because they’re probably going to burn into other fires.

Some of those 500 fires are big, but probably most of them are smaller in comparison. So if you were going to fly over it and look at an aerial map, you’d triage the situation. You’d say some of these you’re going to let burn because they’re going to burn into another fire that was already there.

Often, when you’ve got that many fires it’s caused by lightning, where lightning has moved through an area and dropped hundreds or thousands of lightning strikes.

For days, Moscow has been gray with smoke and soot. News reports state that residents are fleeing the city in droves. Why are the fires wreaking such havoc in Moscow?

The big problem in Moscow with the smog and the smoke is [due to] these peat bog fires. Peat is dead vegetation several feet thick. Fire gets down in there and it smolders. If the peat is dry, it will go several feet underground and just smolder and burn. What comes out of there is nothing but smoke: Smoke and smoke, and more smoke.

When a fire burns very efficiently, it puts off less smoke. But when it’s burning like a cigarette, very inefficiently, like it is down in these peat bogs, it puts off a ton of smoke. And they’re impossible to get out, because how are you going to get water down that deep?

Part of the problem with these high temperatures is there’s a drought, so the peat bogs are dry. You get fire down there, and, boy, those are difficult to get out. You’re going to be dealing with a smoke problem for a long time, unless the winds change or it gets covered up with snow.

Where you’ve got a tree stump within 10 or 20 feet or a fire line, you have to remove that burned stump because the fire will smolder through the roots and come up on the green side of the fire. It will go underneath the fire line and come up on the green side the next season and start a fire. So there’s a tremendous amount of effort put into the hundred feet around the perimeter of a wildfire or a forest fire … to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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Two firefighters move a burning snag to keep its flames from spreading to unburned forest. Snags–dead standing trees–are among the dangers of wildfire fighting, burning slowly at their bases until they fall without warning. Photo by Mark Thiessen (National Geographic Magazine feature, February 2008)

Would you say that Russia’s dreadful fire season could be the result of climate change?

All of the old fire dogs that I talk to about fire say that over the last several years, fires have exhibited more extreme fire behavior and become more dangerous and more frequent.

In Russia, we’re seeing right now these incredibly hot temperatures that lend themselves to drying out vegetation. And this time of year, what you’ve got to remember is that they are so far north that they get daylight for a long time. So you get a lot of radiant heating and drying from the sun in those northern latitudes that you don’t get in other parts of the world. So that dries out stuff even further.

So yes, when you have these hot, dry temperatures you’re going to have more fires. If the Earth gets warmer, you’re going to have more fires.

February 7, 2009, in Australia 173 people died in one afternoon. It was the hottest day in Australia’s history. They were predicting it the day before, and yet what happened was this catastrophe.

Australia tends to be a bellwether for climate change, and I think we’re going to have a lot more fires and more severe fires in the years to come.

You’ve met some of the people on the front lines today, the people who are fighting these wildfires in Russia. Do you have any more thoughts to share about what they’re going through?

When I was in Russia, working with the Russian smokejumpers, it became very clear to me that these are tough sons of bitches! These are the toughest firefighters on the planet. They work incredibly hard with very little resources.

You can do it for a couple weeks a time. Three weeks, maybe? But you’re pretty much fried at the end of those three weeks. They’re long days with daylight most of the time.

It’s exhausting, just exhausting. But these guys are able to do it. It’s what they live for. They just love being outside and in the woods. And I have a huge degree of respect for the Russian smokejumpers.

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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