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Russian Siberia, Five Years Later: Still Neglected, Still Burning

Only so-and-so can prevent wildfires. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Only so-and-so can prevent wildfires. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Massive wildfires are burning across Siberia, most notably in the regions of Khakassia, where 23 have perished, and the Zabaikal region further east. It's been almost five years since Russia witnessed this kind of destruction, when summer wildfires in 2010 killed at least 56 people. RuNet Echo covered those fires, as well as the response online, which included impressive efforts to crowdsource volunteer work, and considerable criticism of the government's response to the crisis. In 2015, Russians are reacting to the new wildfires much as they did in 2010, with several important distinctions.


Much like the response from many Russian bloggers in 2010, there has been growing criticism of both the central government’s handling of the wildfires and the national media’s coverage. A central difference between the 2010 and 2015 wildfires is that the earlier crisis included large fires near Moscow (as well as in faraway regions), while the 2015 wildfires are, so far, only in Siberia. As a result of Russia's Moscow-dominated news cycle, the Russian media has devoted far less attention to what remains an eastern problem, leading many locals in Siberia to resent Moscow, and by extension the Kremlin, for distorting the nation's priorities.

The online community “Typical Chita” (Tipichnaya Chita), where members share memes and information about local events, captures some of this popular sentiment. In the group, a public appeal from the residents of Zabaykalsky Krai (where Chita is located) addressed to the federal government is gaining some attention:

Эээй, правительство, мы Забакайльский край, мы не отделялись. Мы Россия и мы горим! Хватит обсуждать Украину, помогите сначала своему народу!!!

Yo, federal government! This is Zabaykalsky Krai calling. We didn't secede or anything. This is still Russia and we're on fire! Stop discussing Ukraine, start saving your own people!

Russians affected by the ongoing wildfires in the Zabaykalsky Krai have also launched a petition asking President Putin for additional assistance. More than 10,000 people have signed, leaving hundreds of comments.

Вчера, 13.04.2015 года в непосредственной близости к г.Чита полностью сгорели несколько дачных кооперативов, погибла 3х летняя девочка. Люди тушили пожар практически своими силами. Пожарные машины прибывали на место без воды. Электроснабжение было отключено, жители поселков даже не могли использовать собственные скважины.

При этом губернатор Забайкальского края К.К. Ильковский заявил ранее что край готов к пожароопасному периоду, а также заявил телеканалу Россия 24 что сил и средств для ликвидации пожаров в Забайкалье достаточно, хотя это фактически не так. Чита задыхается, с неба падает пепел. Забайкальцам не остается ничего как только продолжать тушить пожары своими силами и надеяться что Вы не оставите преступные действия Ильковского без внимания.

Yesterday, April 14, 2015, not far from the city of Chita, several housing complexes burned down completely, killing a three-year-old girl. People basically had to put out the fire by themselves. Firefighters arrived on the scene without any water. The power supply was cut off, so locals couldn't even pump the water from their own wells.

All this comes after Zabaykalsky Krai Governor Konstantin Ilkovsky announced earlier that the region is ready for the wildfire season, even telling national television that we have enough men and supplies to fight wildfires, when in reality we've got nothing. Chita is suffocating; ash falls from the sky. We're left with no choice but to keep putting out these fires ourselves, hoping you won't let Ilkovsky's actions go unanswered.

Perhaps the pleas of those in Khakassia and Zabaykal were heard. During Putin's annual call-in show on April 16, he laid out a $100-million aid package that is primarily aimed at assisting those whose property was damaged by the wildfires.

That said, it's not just disgruntled netizens who are unhappy with how the national media has covered the wildfires. Representatives of at least one provincial government—the Twitter account belonging to the Republic of Khakassia's Ministry of Construction Industry, Housing, and Utilities—criticized the news agency Vesti for inaccurate reporting:

Vesti writes, “they succeeded in saving more than 60,000 homes.” We've only got 16,000 homes—and that's including the apartment blocks. Where's [this information] from???

Volunteer efforts

In contrast to the 2010 fires, there has been no real upsurge in technological innovations to crowdsource volunteer efforts for wildfire victims. This is likely due in large part to the brief amount of time that the recent wildfires have burned (the 2010 fires burned for months), and the 2010 fires’ proximity to Moscow, which gave that disaster greater visibility and urgency in Russian society.

Nevertheless, people in Siberia have leveraged social media to facilitate volunteering efforts for victims in Khakassia and Zabaykalsky. Members of the “Typical Chita” online group, for instance, have shared the contact information of people who need assistance in areas affected by the fires, such as individuals and families who are stranded somewhere or need fresh drinking water delivered. Internet users elsewhere on VKontakte, too, are sharing the locations of areas in need of volunteers, along with driving directions and phone numbers for anyone who wishes to help with the relief effort.

Additionally, a VKontakte group for volunteer fire fighters in the Zabaykalsky Krai has been extremely active since the beginning of the fires. The group's volunteers trade information about whom to contact, where to gather humanitarian aid, where to meet to fight the blazes, and more.

The Ukraine connection

The most obvious difference between Russia during the 2010 fires and Russia during its current crisis has nothing to do with the fires, and everything to do with the ongoing war in Ukraine. While the connection between the wildfires and the Ukrainian conflict might not seem obvious at first, the people of Siberia have made the link easily enough. According to an alleged dispatch from pro-Russia separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, some fighters are returning home to Russia, in order to join the understaffed firefighting effort:

Горит Сибирь и Дальний Восток. Ополченцы-сибиряки временно возвращаются на малую родину, чтобы помочь землякам в тушении пожаров. Горят тысячи гектаров леса, сотни людей лишились крова. Ветеран иловайской кампании, прибывший к местам тушения пожаров, заявил, что когда он прибыл на пепелище, то по привычке подумал, что по поселку прошлись украинские каратели, настолько сильный был ущерб, нанесенный огненной стихией.

Siberia and the Far East are burning. Siberia's militiamen are returning home temporarily to help their countrymen put out the fires. Thousands of hectares of forest are burning, and hundreds of people are left without a roof over their heads. A veteran of the campaign in Ilovaisk [in eastern Ukraine], who visited the area where some of the firefighting [in Siberia] is happening, said he stepped onto the ashes and was ready to believe the Ukrainian fighters had marched through the village, so devastating was the wildfire.

So far, reports like these of Russian volunteers returning home to Russia to fight wildfires remain unverified. One Russian Twitter user noticed the irony of a recent humanitarian convoy shipment from Khakassia to the war-ravaged Donbass:

Khakassia, which is now on fire, is sending more humanitarian aid to the Donbass, in what is surely part of someone's masterful game plan.

No breaks for Siberia

Even though five years and a far different geopolitical climate separate the two major wildfire outbreaks in Russia, they share common traits: dissatisfaction with the government's response, as well as crowdsourcing and volunteer efforts organized through social media. Because the 2015 fires are so far localized in Siberia, Russia's Moscow-dominated state and media have showed relatively little interest in this crisis.

Indeed, even the locals themselves apparently view the fires, at least in part, through the prism of the conflict in Ukraine.

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