Thursday, August 12

Lessons of "Fire Wars" still not learned: Russia's critical mistakes in wildfire management lead to a nuclear cliffhanger

Two very instructive news reports, which I provide in full below (one is a hair-raising look at nuclear facilities endangered by the wildfires), underscore the large role that human error can play in exacerbating the damage from wildfires. (See Discover Magazine's 1994 article for the science of firestorms.)

In 2002 American PBS television aired a NOVA special about wildfire management called Fire Wars. It was a primer on the evolving 'science' of fighting wildfires and the lessons learned. The DVD for the documentary is available, and I think I've linked to it least twice over the years on this blog and maybe even published the transcript once. In any event, enough knowledge is already out there; it's a matter of putting it to use. Once upon a time Russia had a world-class wildfire-fighting organization. Now see what happened to it:

August 12, 2010:
Top Firefighter Longs for ‘Good, Old System’
By Nikolaus von Twickel, The Moscow Times

The devastating wildfires have shown severe shortcomings in Russia's firefighting organization, deficits that are all the more bizarre because until recently the country possessed one of the world's biggest task forces specialized in combating burning woods and fields.

That organization, the Aerial Forest Protection Center, or Avialesokhrana, employed some 9,000 firefighters specially trained and equipped to put out wildfires in Soviet times.

Most of them were so-called smokejumpers, who fly and parachute right into remote fire-hit areas.

In the 1990s, their number was slashed to about 4,000, and in 2007, the center was reduced to the status of a monitoring agency, with just 1,800 personnel left at its disposal.

This summer's catastrophic fires have shown that the reform was a failure and the best way out is to re-establish a unified wildfire fighting center, Andrei Yeritsov, deputy director of the Aerial Forest Protection Center, said Wednesday.

"It would be good if the responsibility for putting out fires were handed back to the federal level," Yeritsov told The Moscow Times.

The reform was part of the new Forest Code, which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2007.

The code, which has been lambasted by environmentalists as the result of timber and real estate industry lobbying, transferred responsibility for the country's vast woodlands to local owners and regional authorities, effectively crippling the woodland fire control system.

The case of the Aerial Forest Protection Center highlights environmentalists' argument.

With the reform, most of the center's resources went into the hands of the country's regions, which seriously impeded effective firefighting activities, Yeritsov said.

Much of the center's staff and equipment ended up in the regions where they happened to be based, leading to massive misallocations, he said.

As an example, he named the center's once formidable fleet of firefighting planes and helicopters. All 106 aircraft, mainly consisting of An-2 biplanes, were given to the regions, where just half of them are now being used for firefighting.

The Vladimir region, east of Moscow, got 16 planes, although it needed only one, meaning that the aircraft sit mostly on the ground or are used for other, commercial purposes.

"This is absurd," Yeritsov said.

The regions also laid off many of the firefighters they inherited, leading to the current shortage of wildfire specialists, he said.

"These people have enormous experience in putting out wildfires — they did it every year. Normal fire brigades do this maybe once in a decade," he said.

Officials with the Aerial Forest Protection Center have asked the government to consider re-establishing the center's position as the central institution for fighting wildfires and hope that they will be successful, Yeritsov said.

"We know our suggestions are being considered. It would be good to return to the old system," he said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who signed the Forest Code as president in 2006, said Tuesday that the Federal Forest Agency, which oversees the Aerial Forest Protection Center, should be placed under direct government control. The agency now answers to the Agriculture Ministry.

Oleg Aksyonov, a spokesman for the ministry, said he could not comment on further reforms because they would be taken directly by the government.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not answer repeated calls to his cell phone Wednesday.

The situation is unlikely to improve soon because regional governors will be reluctant to hand back their powers to the Aerial Forest Protection Center, said Johann Goldammer, head of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

In a telephone interview, Goldammer assailed the Forest Code for transferring responsibility from the state to commercial owners.

"These owners are more interested in quick profits than in sustainable forestry," he said.

State control should be reinstated because the country's vast forests and carbon-producing marshes are hugely important for the global ecosystem, he said.

But Russia is not alone when it comes to disorganized firefighting capabilities. The most widespread problem is that traditional firefighters are not trained and equipped for wildfires, Goldammer said.

In that respect, the Aerial Forest Protection Center had been a model agency. "In good times they had very good equipment and trained specialists," he said.

Decentralization often makes things more complicated, yet some European regions have successfully built efficient structures.

"Catalonia in Spain and regions in the south of France probably have Europe's best capacities to fight wildfires," Goldammer said.

Others, notably Greece, have failed by introducing reforms aiming at shifting powers from forest authorities to firefighters.

Europeans and Russians could also learn from the United States, where state-level organization is backed up with national coordination.

A specialist team from the U.S. Forest Disaster Assistance Support Program is currently in Moscow to assess how Washington can help fighting the wildfires, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

"They’re working — continuing to consult with the Russian government about how we can be helpful," he said, according to a transcript on the State Department's web site.

The meetings come after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week offered help to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Both countries have a history of cooperation in fighting fires. In the 1970s, they began an exchange of smokejumpers, according to the U.S. government's web site.

In 2008, representatives of the Aerial Forest Protection Center held an exchange of ideas with American wildfire managers in California, and U.S. Forest Service specialists participated in a June conference on cross-border forest fires in the East Siberian city of Irkutsk.
August 11, 2010:
Wildfires in Russia Fan Nuclear Fears
By Judy Pasternak, AOL News

The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and years of effort to help Russia secure its nuclear stockpiles from what is euphemistically referred to as "diversion." But the 600 wildfires raging across the Russian countryside spotlight another risk to the nuclear-industrial complex: natural disaster.

Add to the flaming peat and forest infernos, the acrid city smog and the scorched village dwellings the specter of an atomic explosion or plumes of unseen radiation. "It demonstrates that terrorists are not the only threat against Russian nuclear weapons," Hans Kristensen, a nuclear researcher with the Federation of American Scientists, told AOL News.

Russia's frantic maneuvers to protect radioactive material and weapons labs suggest that the government was caught unprepared. With a state of emergency declared in the Chelyabinsk region Tuesday, vegetation was hastily stripped from around the Mayak uranium reprocessing complex. About 700 miles away, at a major lab in Sarov, troops rushed to dig a five-mile moat. Both of these sites played major roles in the development of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949.

Sarov, about 220 miles east of Moscow, is one of Russia's "secret cities" closed to outsiders. A former monastery, it was the site of Design Bureau No. 11, which carried out the production and assembly of the first Soviet bomb. The complex, then known as Arzamas-16, grew into a design center for thermonuclear weapons and is still Russia's main nuclear research laboratory. The southern part of the grounds is thickly wooded.

Russia's nuclear director, Sergei Kiriyenko, has assured President Dmitry Medvedev that all radioactive materials had been spirited away from the installation, just in case. "I can guarantee that even in an extreme situation with squalling winds, there is no danger to nuclear security, no threat of radiation, explosions or environmental consequences," he said last week.

Over the weekend, a blazing wall of fire in the area was broken down into smaller patches that could be more easily contained.

Yet the transport of that material -- experts say probably by rail -- exposes it to the possibility of accident or even theft, the traditional fear among security researchers. Highly enriched uranium is frequently shipped to Siberia; the Russians burn it down to a depleted state for use by U.S. nuclear power plants to produce electricity.

"But it's not usually in a hurry, and they probably didn't have quite the same preparation that they normally would," Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University nuclear researcher, told AOL News. "I would certainly have concerns while it was on the road."

Nobody has mentioned moving the fissile material at Mayak, where the plutonium for the first bomb was refined and a huge processing center for plutonium and tritium developed. "There are thousands and thousands of canisters of plutonium oxide," Bunn said.

Several American nuclear analysts said they also worry about fire protection at the temporary storage sites where tactical nuclear weapons are often kept while in transit. These are warheads for smaller missiles and submarines, as opposed to the long-range intercontinental missiles that make up the vast majority of Russia's nuclear arsenal. "It's hard to say if they are threatened, because we don't know where all of them are," Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council told AOL News.

The long-range missiles, which make up the bulk of the country's 12,000 nuclear weapons, should be safe, Kristensen said, despite the fact that they are stored deep in Russia's dark pine forests, with the treeline in many cases just 35 feet away. The storage site Irkutsk-45, for instance, consists of five vaults near Zalari in the Transbaikal, where fires have been severe. But they lie in state at the center of underground bunkers made of concrete and steel, with perimeter chambers around them. The protection is designed to withstand a direct nuclear hit.

Still, Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, who served as deputy commander in chief and chief of staff of the U.S. Strategic Command, said in a statement that because the New START pact has not been ratified, the U.S. has "no on-site inspectors or other verification measures to monitor the risks to the security of Russian weapons or nuclear material" during the fires. "These risks could pose serious security implications not just for Russia but for the U.S. and for the world ... that our current intelligence is unable to watch closely."

Yet arms inspectors would not be able to examine the tactical weapons that pose the most concern; these are not covered by treaties anyway. Russia keeps very quiet about the number. But estimates peg the inventory at about 5,400 with slightly more than 2,000 operational. The U.S., by comparison, keeps approximately 500 active tactical weapons, including 200 in Europe, and an additional 700 in storage.

As if all that weren't enough, at Mayak, where the plutonium for the first bomb was refined, another problem looms. This is a heavily contaminated area. Between 1949 and 1956, the plant directly released radionuclides into a reservoir. In 1957, there was an explosion in a tank that held high-level radioactive waste. In 1967, the wind blew radioactive material out of the dried-up bed of Lake Karachav and dispersed the particles around the community.

A 2008 study by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority found increased incidences of leukemia, solid cancers and birth defects among Mayak residents, which scientists linked to radiation exposure. If fire unleashes radioactive material deposited in the Mayak forests, "I would argue that the dangers to human health from fires and particulates are far higher than that from the radiation that would be stirred up," Harvard's Bunn said.

Experts said the same is true for the contaminated zones around Chernobyl, the nuclear power plant where a series of explosions rocked the No. 4 reactor on April 26, 1986, sending radioactive dust across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Europe.

Greenpeace Russia issued a statement today that three fires had been registered in the Bryansk region, which includes Chernobyl, in forests highly polluted with the nuclear isotope cesium-137.

Andrew Sowder, a health physicist who monitored Chernobyl safety issues for the U.S. State Department, told AOL News that much of the radioactive material from the accident has decayed or become so tightly bound to the soil that it should not be easily dispersed by fire. Though he expects the health risks to be low, Sowder recommended monitoring and added that it will be important to reseed the area to keep the radioactive soil from blowing away later. "You don't want erosion," he said.

According to Reuters, radiation levels in Moscow today were within normal limits, said Yelena Popova, who heads the region's monitoring center.

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