“The entire firefighting system was fully engaged in combating fires”

Many Russians will remember the summer of 2010 as one afflicted by scorching heat, raging wildfires and choking smog.

The country's Emergencies Minister told RT what lessons were learned from this bitter experience.

RT: This summer, Russia faced great forest fires, and some are still raging. Why do you think it all happened on such a scale?

Sergey Shoigu: The key reason for all this, of course, is the record-breaking heat we had in Central Russia, along the Volga River, which caused forest fires on quite a significant scale. Those fires could have been prevented to a certain extent – but only to an extent – through timely fire alerts.

Under such climatic conditions, the key goal is to extinguish fires within one hour from them starting, or at least on the same day, because if a fire is not contained in six hours, squall winds occur that make the situation critical. The fire becomes either a running crown fire or a high-acreage ground fire. With winds of up to 20-25 meters per second – even 30 meters per second in some regions – forest fires turn into firestorms.

No fire service in the world has been able to deal with things like that so far. The situation now, on the contrary to the second part of your question about fires “still raging in some parts of the country”, is far better now than at the same time last year and previous years. Perhaps this is due to the fact all authorities are mobilized and alert in the wake of the grave events of late July and August.

Speaking of lessons we can learn from all this, we sure are reviewing many postulates and dogmas we used to have before. We are considering changes – upon the president's order– to Russia's forest legislation.

RT: How exactly did that forest legislation prevent the authorities from fighting fires?

SS: Well, to begin with, this function has been delegated to the level of municipalities, federal entities, and the Forest Department, along with safety and fire control in forests.

Federal entities were supposed to handle all that work: hold tenders and choose businesses and organizations to protect forests from fires, but unfortunately, that work was not done well enough. In some regions, authorities gave contracts to businesses that had neither the equipment nor the staff nor the experience to prevent forest fires.

RT: As for fighting the forest fires, can you say that your ministry did everything it could? Or is there something you are displeased with?

SS: I think we on our part used as much effort and equipment as possible. I can say thank god that through all those years, against all odds, we kept developing new equipment, new aircraft and firefighting systems that helped us a great deal in putting out the forest fires.

It is perhaps the first time that the entire system of the Federal Firefighting Service has been fully engaged in combating forest fires. Our zone of responsibility was in residential areas. We usually work in towns and villages, but this time, we had to quickly learn previously unfamiliar ways to tackle high-acreage fires, especially crown fires.

RT: Why “previously unfamiliar”?

SS: That is what I began with. It is not our function. It is the function of the Federal Forestry Agency.

RT: When the fires broke out, wasn’t the President informed of it? Wasn’t he told that perhaps your ministry should be involved in fighting the fires?

SS: When the situation became critical, the president signed a decree that declared a state of emergency. That means all federal forces, and the Ministry of Emergency first of all, are engaged.

This is why it took us just two days to establish a task force of nearly 160,000 people and almost 26,000 units of equipment. We also created a large aerial task force, with up to 50 aircraft operating simultaneously. After all, on the third or the fourth day, we had begun putting out more fires than there were new ones.

Up to 400 or 500 new fires would break out every day. And in addition to fighting new fires, we had to keep fighting the existing ones. I think the fact that we managed to save some 4,600 residential areas with a total population of more than half a million is a great achievement for our firefighters, volunteers, local residents, and the military who were also summoned to help – all the people who stood up against the elements in this emergency.

Of course, we analyze all our work. We exchange experience and advice with our Western colleagues. I would like everyone to realize that such disasters are not nation-specific. Catastrophes know no borders, customs, nationalities, or religion – this is perhaps the most important lesson we should learn from this situation. We should learn to consolidate our efforts, to join forces, to give a helping hand to each other, and to do our job efficiently.

RT: More and more often, disasters touch not only one country or region, but sometimes whole continents. Is there any global warning system? How often do you and your foreign counterparts interact with each other?

SS: Well, as for the fires here in Russia, we didn’t ask for any help, but we didn’t reject it when we were offered it. We are grateful to our foreign colleagues who came from 19 countries to provide help and support.

It is essential – and I point that out once again – that a disaster knows no borders or nationalities. Our top priority is safety and human lives. This is the key lesson we got from that situation.

RT: Mr. Shoigu, most disasters in Russia tend to occur in the summer. What do the emergency services have to be ready for in winter?

SS: In winter, we prepare for the spring. But we have lots of work in winter as well. The country is very big. A huge part of Russia is in quake-prone areas. We have several thousand ice river crossings in winter. Those are places where thousands of trucks cross rivers, carrying loads of supplies for the North and remote areas of Siberia.

However, the key job we do is to handle serious accidents in the energy sector, in heating, and generally in sustainment systems, if critical situations occur.

Speaking of our work in general, there is much effort underway now to help Kyrgyzstan, and we are also providing help to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Our helicopters and minesweepers now work in Serbia. Our helicopters are there to help fight forest fires. In fact, over the last decade, we have worked in Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Italy, Portugal, and many other countries.

In Serbia, for example, we are clearing the grounds of mines for the future South Stream gas pipeline. It’s a big job. We are clearing the fields of shells, bombs and mines from World War II and the 1999 NATO bombardments of Serbia.

RT: If we look at it more in global terms, there is an impression that natural disasters have become more frequent in Russia and elsewhere around the globe. We know about that not only because we are better informed in our time. Wildfires are followed by floods and floods are followed by tsunamis. What should we prepare for? Is it just going to get worse and worse?

SS: As you may know, the number of natural disasters has, indeed, increased over the past 20 years and this increase is significant. It is not just my outside “impression”. Indeed, this is research carried out by analysts. The number of natural disasters is not just up by 30 or 50 percent, it is several times more than that. Everybody knows that.

Here, I would like to warn you against two things. First, there is always a great desire to use this situation for political purposes. This should be avoided. The environmental sphere is politicized so much in Russia that it is impossible to see when it is true or when the truth is exploited for political purposes.

RT: So, where’s the truth? Do you think that global warming really exists?

SS: You know, the climate has changed. We can see that. Just think!

Snow has become common in places where we have never seen it before or have just read about it in ancient writings.

We see that the permafrost zone keeps melting further. We can see that plants that used to bloom once a year are now blossoming two or even three times.

Soon, it is going to be more than six months that we have been working on the Northern Sea Route. If previously the coastal ice used to recede for a period from 70 to 90 days, today the Northern Sea Route is free from ice for 100-150 days, and ships can sail freely in clear waters. This also tells us something.

Firstly, I think that the country’s leadership and our president have made the correct and well-weighted decision to carry out serious detailed analysis. Secondly, you know what our president proposed in the aftermath of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico where the accident occurred on an oil well? He called for the creation of a system for a global response to man-made and emergency disasters.

In addition, after critical situations in Pakistan and in Russia, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made similar proposals – and that is something we have been talking about for over ten years – that there is a need for a European emergency response system that would use Europe’s most advanced technologies.

RT: So, what shall we do at this moment? For example, last year saw a number of man-made disasters. But was that infrastructure built in Soviet days? Is it worn out? Do you think more manmade disasters are coming soon?

SS: Of course, we are working on that, too. I wouldn’t so unambiguously claim that we inherited all the equipment from Soviet days and that it’s all obsolete and is about to start falling apart piece after piece. Naturally, things become old and need to be modernized. But we are doing a lot. If we’re speaking about man-made accidents, our country has adopted a major program for the development of power engineering. It provides for the creation of new energy-generating capacities and renovating the old ones created in the former USSR. This is a big and serious project which we are implementing.

A large atomic energy program is under way. It is designed to replace Soviet nuclear power units.

The period between 2002 and 2003 was quite difficult and dangerous. At that time equipment that was already beyond repair was reaching the end of its service life. And we had to closely watch all those processes.

But we are moving forward. The country is developing and getting modernized. Russian legislation is being upgraded and new, state-of-the-art technologies are being introduced. And safety technologies should develop either simultaneously with the new technologies or even slightly ahead of them, to maintain safety on transport and in industries. Safety matters should be a priority. All the rest comes after that.

RT: You have mentioned the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It grabbed the global headlines. Russia also extracts huge amounts of oil not only on the surface but also on the sea shelf. Do we have a system at the moment that will help avoid severe consequences should such an accident occur?

SS: You know, we have been closely watching developments in the Gulf of Mexico. Naturally, our oil extracting companies have also been watching. Of course, they can learn from such an experience and try to apply it here. As for our oil workers, I would say that these questions are not the last for them because they actively learn from foreign experience. No wonder that they win contests and biddings for oil extraction, the construction of refineries and other facilities necessary for the production of gas and oil. That is why I think that this experience is certainly tragic, on the one hand, but absolutely unique on the other hand.

I hope that such accidents will never be repeated. And if they are, then we can be ready for them.

RT: According to opinion polls, you have been the most popular minister for the past few years. Why do you think that is?

SS: I don’t think that it’s right when an emergency minister is the most popular minister in the country. I believe that artists, writers, culture and foreign ministers should be most popular figures. An emergencies minister should largely stay unemployed.