Nine killed as forest fires rage in eastern Ukraine
Wildfires burning out of control in the war zone in eastern Ukraine are setting off land mines in a buffer area between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, complicating the already dangerous work of fire crews facing hot, dry and windy conditions. The fire is burning through an area of grassy hills and pine forests, all tinder dry, in the Luhansk region, near the border with Russia and divided by the front line in the war, which began in 2014 and has settled into a long stalemate. At least nine people have died and 18 others were injured of which 10 have been hospitalised while four people are missing in the forest fires in Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk. A total of 146 fires were recorded in the region, with 116 of them extinguished, according to local authorities. Some 120 people were evacuated from the areas affected by the fires, which have destroyed 250 buildings. At least 22 villages could be affected by the flames, which have been aggravated by "extremely difficult weather conditions" and hurricane gusts of up to 70 km/h, they added. Police investigations into the reason of the fires still continue, while 1 500 workers along with 200 vehicles and three tanker planes participate in extinguishing efforts. The fires have spread across 93 square kilometres. The explosions reported by fire fighters and military observers near the front line, have piled one problem on top of another, hampering fire fighting efforts.
“We cannot reach it because of the mines and we cannot use aviation because of the war,” Mykhailo Shevchenko, a member of the city council in Stanytsia Luhanska, a nearby town, said in a telephone interview. Fire fighting airplanes could become targets of antiaircraft systems near the front. A cease-fire agreed to in July has mostly held but mines, unexploded artillery shells, lost bullets and other hazards litter the area after years of conflict. There are no indications either side has tried to use the fire or smoke to restart hostilities.
Shevchenko said he stood near part of the wildfire zone for a time and heard “continuous explosions of different strengths, from bullets to anti-tank mines.” Local residents have told Ukrainian authorities that artillery shelling into the dry forest touched off at least one wildfire but President Volodymyr Zelensky has said the cause is still unknown. Whatever started it, hot, dry winds have fanned the flames.
“This is not the best year for our country in terms of natural disasters and other tragedies,” President Zelensky said. The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated fire fighting and evacuation efforts. Seven people have died in the wildfires, 18 have been injured and another four are missing, all unrelated to the exploding ordnance, officials said. The fires have destroyed or damaged about 400 houses, forced the closure of the region’s only crossing point over the front line and destroyed a Red Cross aid point.
Evacuees, meanwhile, are at risk of catching the virus in crowded shelters. When the fire approached Olhovski Dachi, a summer home community, Tetiana Vasiukova boarded a bus with about 30 other residents and spent the night with them on folding beds in a community centre.
Farther from the front, the fire forced the evacuation of a dormitory for school children, many of whom had moved there from front-line villages at risk of artillery shelling.
Deadlier and more frequent wildfires are occurring around the world, often linked to climate change. In Australia’s wildfire season, wind and heat fanned what Australians called ‘megablazes’. Major wildfires exploded on the West Coast of the United States in the worst fire season on record there.
Ukraine has been no exception. The number of wildfires in Ukraine tripled during the first half of the year; the burned area was 40 times larger compared with the same period last year.
Sources: Reuters, Euro News