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Firefighters plucked to safety in dramatic helicopter rescues in burning taiga

By The Siberian Times reporter
01 August 2012

Dozens of marooned forest rangers were rescued amid fears they had been caught inside raging rings of fire in Siberia.

A total of 160 wildfires are reported across Siberia. Pictures: Alexander Lesnyanskiy 

This came as the authorities insisted the forest fire crisis is improving despite allegations from Greenpeace that officials are guilty of 'lies, deliberate hiding or falsification of information' over the scale of the infernos. 

Reports on Tuesday and Wednesday said 27 firefighters had been evacuated from a remote area of Krasnoyarsk region where earlier they had been stranded without food for five days.

Attempts to bring them to safety had stalled earlier due to poor visibility from heavy smoke fumes preventing helicopters reaching them, but the clouds later cleared allowing rescuers to bring them out. 

As the drama unfolded, the head of the wildfire-stricken Yeniseisky district, Sergei Yermakov, had told RIA Novosti:'To get out of the forest, they will have to walk over 100 kilometres, but now - while there are no fire reconnaissance works being carried out - they could find themselves stranded in the middle of a blaze.'

The head of the local forest ranger centre, Dmitry Selin, had insisted: 'Round- the-clock contacts are maintained with them. The situation is regular and it is under control. They have drinking water, medicines, weapons. They are highly-qualified specialists, they underwent professional training and know what to do in such situation.'

Later reports made clear the rangers were all safely rescued.

'The men were taken to the town of Yeniseisk by helicopter in the evening when the sky cleared from smoke,' reported Itar-Tass later.

Another group of 11 were earlier evacuated from Yeniseisky district  to the settlement of Bezymyanka.

A total of 80 forest fires - including nine large blazes -  are reported in across Krasnoyarsk region covering an estimated 8,300 hectares. 

Fire fighting operations in the territory involve more than 3,000 men, over 300 fire vehicles and some 20 aircrafts. Two Defence Ministry Ilyushin-76 planeshad discharged at total of 168 tons of water.

Despite the difficult situation in Krasnoyarsk, the Emergencies Ministry claimed it was winning the fire battles across Siberia. 

'Thanks to a wide-scale use of aircrafts, the situation in Siberia has improved,' said a spokesman. 

On Tuesday alone, the ministry's aircraft made 94 discharges of a total of 1,261 tons of water. In badly hit Tomsk region there were  90 flights to discharge 1,093 tons of water on forest fires.

Earlier the head of Greenpeace in Russia, Alexei Yaroshenko, accused the authorities of a cover-up over the scale of the fires in Siberia and the Russian Far East. 

Citing Yakutia as one example, he said 'the authorities like Russian Forestry and the Emergencies Ministry still do not accept the fact of  the growing disaster. 

'Well, it is a common thing for our country, that the catastrophic fires away from Moscow are not noticed by the authorities or are noticed with huge delays when it is too late to take any measures.'

He claimed satellite maps showed the true crisis was greater than officials acknowledged. 

'Lies, deliberate hiding or falsification of information about the number, size and danger of forest fires is the main problem of fighting them. 

'For the sake of official statistics, the size of forest fires is cut five to seven times, and in some regions even 100 times. Information about the dangers in the certain area is often postponed one or two days.'

In some regions there was 'censorship' - the 'official explanation is that journalists are often confused when information comes from various sources'.

The consequences are that 'many heads of the regions are not motivated to fight effectively with fires', he claimed.

'The status of the emergency situation is not activated at all, or it is not activated in time, and it leads to non-effective mobilisation of local emergency teams and to problems in communication.'

He claimed federal forces were sent 'days late when it is almost impossible to handle the situation'.

In addition, people in threatened areas were 'not informed about the dangers of fires and of health danger from heavy smoke...and it ends in damage to property and victims'.

Officials did, though, point to significant damage to crops across Siberia due to the drought, suggesting the financial cost exceeds six billion roubles.

More than three million hectares of crops have been damaged by drought in Altai region, with 116,000 hectares of crops destroyed in Kemerovo region, and 75,000 hectares in Tomsk region.

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