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What Montana can teach Russia about wildfires



Russia is on fire. Farmlands, forests and rural hamlets are all feeling the combined heat of drought conditions, negligent burning and shifting government policy. Moscow suffered such poor air quality in the summer of 2010 that medical authorities claimed a few hours' walk around the city was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes.

Last week, a delegation representing several non-governmental Russian agencies stopped by the U.S. Forest Service's Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center in Missoula. They were escorted by Sheila Slump, a USFS spokeswoman from D.C., and Audrey Wood, a program associate with the San Francisco nonprofit Pacific Environment. They were here to pose questions on how to calm the blaze back home.

"What these guys were looking for was more how to work with the community, how to engage the community in protecting themselves from fires and how to really educate the community about fire safety," Slump says.

The USFS has a long history of aiding Russia in matters of firefighting policy and practices, from smokejumper exchange programs to research projects on black carbon in the Arctic. The agency's Brad Kinder says that over the years, he's had Russian representatives inquire about how the U.S. prioritizes wildfire fighting in hopes of improving wildfire management in vast forested areas like the Russian Far East.

Many of Russia's woes are tied to a 2007 decision to decentralize the country's forest management and firefighting responsibilities, effectively laying off 70,000 forest wardens. Some fires are now under the jurisdiction of private logging operations, others of small fire brigades run of organizations such as those whose delegates visited Missoula. According to a 2010 United Nations report by German forest researcher Johann Goldammer, Russia's ability to ensure sustainable forest management "has dramatically weakened" under the new Forest Code.

Scientists like Goldammer now fear that unchecked fires in Russia could rapidly accelerate global warming and, in some regions, release radioactive particles leftover from nuclear accidents.

The Russians that the USFS and Pacific Environment have partnered with often talk about the lack of jurisdictional clarity in firefighting, Kinder says, especially when it comes to agricultural burns. Some regions have gone so far as to ban slash fires, but it seems to Kinder that the rules are often ignored in the wake of the new policy. Who deals with the subsequent blaze is a question often tangled in red tape. "I think that's kind of the niche our partners are trying to fill," he says.

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