We leave Bulgunnyakhtakh by boat. Lena Pillars is not just a huge territory with an area of over a million hectares, which stretches for 220 kilometers along the river bank. These are also "Sinsky pillars", "Ust-Buotama" and others. Lena Pillars themselves occupy only a 40-kilometer coastline along the right bank of the Lena.
On the river we see a dead eagle, the symbol of the Khangalassky district.
It is impossible to extinguish fires here. There’s very difficult terrain. "As soon as the wind starts, the fire becomes riding," say the people who lift a heavy extinguishing sleeve on the rocks.
62-year-old hunting user Vladimir Latyshev has been working on fires in the park since June 19.
"It is difficult to work here, because because of dry thunderstorms, fires occur on the tops of rocks. It is very difficult to reach them," he says, waving away the midges, and even the Pavlovsky mosquito net does not save from them.
The cars do not go up there. 20-liter knapsack forest fire extinguishers are filled from the river and lifted each time onto the rocks.
After a terrible riding fire on the Buotama, hunters were sent home for several days. At the beginning of the week they returned. "When we were in the area of Hara Uu, we got surrounded by two fires, and at some point a third one formed. Apparently, the fire was asleep, then it woke up and went riding straight at us. It rises 30-50 meters from the treetops, the sound is like a helicopter taking off. We barely escaped. We made it within 15 minutes," he says.
They live on the bank of the river in tents. There are only 17 people in the camp. They work in shifts. "13 people have now gone deeper from that side, the fire has crossed the mineralized strip," says the inspector of Lena Pillars.
Today, there are six wildfires on the territory of the park on an area of 23 thousand hectares. There are 137 people who work there. Those are employees of fire services 106 people, 24 employees of the national park, those are state inspectors and five hunters.
Is it possible to extinguish fires in Lena Pillars Park?
Arkady Semenov, Director of Lena Pillars National Park:
- There are no fires that cannot be extinguished.
Is the situation under control?
— I cannot say that the situation is under control right now. We haven’t flown there for 2 days. Now it's calm there, the visibility is 200 meters. We try not to take the mobilized people there. Yes, we announced that we are recruiting people, but we try to take only those who worked in forest fires, those who have experience. We don't take everyone who wants to go there. Firstly, the terrain is very difficult, secondly, it is life-threatening, and thirdly, the conditions are very difficult, we do not go there by car, we need to move either on foot or by helicopter. Helicopters are absent for three to five days due to the weather. It has its own fire extinguishing features. These are the main reasons that create unfavorable conditions for us to quickly eliminate the fire.
Why does the park work?
- The park is still working. Yesterday we closed the rafting on the Buotama River. Earlier, tour operators promised not to make bonfires, but they continue to make them. The inspectors drew up several protocols. We have banned rafting trips. The Ust-Buotama shelter is now open so that people can come and see our bison. And so that they can see Lena Pillars, but they are open only while the situation is more or less under control, as soon as it changes for the worse, we will immediately close all our facilities and the entire park.
How far are the fires from the entrance to the park?
- More than 20 kilometers. While it makes no sense to close Lena Pillars, who will come in such a smog? People don't come here. With visibility of 200 meters, you will not raft, you will not see anything.
Do you need any additional help: transmitters, knapsack forest fire extinguishers, shovels, overalls, quadrocopters?
— The equipment is all there. The other day, the camp of 13 fighters of the Chita airbase burned down, all their property burned down. Now we are buying everything. They are in Pokrovsk today, they will have a rest for a while, take a bath, and then we will give them a break for one or two days. We'll move them back to the fire tomorrow. If there are helicopters. It all depends on the weather and visibility.
I hope that everything is fine now, because when last we were flying around, the guys were working on their edge. I think they will keep the fire from spreading. We need to fly there as soon as the smog clears. And we also need to transfer forces and means, especially people, since the fire area is large, it can spread.
What kind of equipment can reach that area, how are mineralized bands created?
- Basically all the work is done manually. Since the beginning of the period of dangerous fires, 11 fires have been registered. Five of them were extinguished manually, basically, you can move around with equipment, there are small areas that you can reach. But it's almost nothing. We use the equipment only on every fifth fire. In other places it is absolutely impossible to keep it from spreading. From the side of the bank of the river, we create edges, mineralized paths and that's all we can do. Nowhere else. Last time the fire became a riding fire, now we are trying to dig him out with Belarus tractor. And there is not everywhere a tractor can pass along the edge. So basically everything is done manually.
The weather forecast is not very favorable, now it would be great to have rains all over the republic for three or four days. I think the situation throughout the republic would have improved. In fact, our situation is more or less good, if compared with settlements that are seriously threatened by fire, those areas should be a priority for using air equipment and aviation. We understand everything perfectly, so we rely only on ourselves and do everything possible and impossible to quickly cope with the fire on our territory. The guys work days and nights.
Have Lena Pillars ever burned so much?
There has never been such a thing as 11 fires in a fire season, this is something unimaginable. When I got a job in 2016, there were five wildfires. Four were in the park and one on the Sinyaya River. At that time it was the maximum in history. This year, records were broken in the republic and in a number of territories. There is an unprecedented drought, the area of fires is increasing at an unreal rate. There are mostly riding fires, because the land is dry. It hasn't rained since spring. And the larger the area, the more difficult it is to extinguish the fires. Fires need to be extinguished in the first hours of its registration. If it is gaining strength, it is useless to do anything there. Nothing has been invented yet against riding fires.
Did UNESCO react to our fires somehow?
There were no official requests from UNESCO yet, but there will be requests, I am sure. It all depends on the area covered by the fire. The area of the national park is 1,217,940 hectares, and the area covered by fire is 23 thousand hectares. If compared with the area of the whole park, it is more than one percent. Of course, this is a lot.
We are doing everything possible and impossible, we hope that we will keep this fire from spreading and not give it the opportunity to spread any more. We will try.
Video: Sergey Sivtsev
Photo: Vadim Skryabin
Author: Elena Alekseeva