According to signals from space

New Meteor satellite to observe Belarus’ forest fires from 2010
This spring, rescuers have been busy fighting natural fires — which have begun almost a month ahead of schedule in fields, woods and hay harvests. The country is at level four for fire hazard (out of five) and preliminary forecasts promise more hot, dry weather!

Genie in a bottle. The An-2 weir device stands in the Emergency Ministry’s Bellesavia Molodechno Department at midday. Once all its systems have been checked, it will be launched for a four hour orbit to monitor 500km of land. It will be able to view fields, small houses and dense forests. Smoke is billowing, like a genie from a giant bottle. On seeing it, the pilot transmits its co-ordinates by radio to base, ‘Patrol 15 informs the woodman. Dry grass on the field close to the forest is on fire in the village of Prudischi, Logoisk district. Take measures!’ The forestry receiving the message relays it to the local rescue service as back-up.

Our plane made contact another five times during the flight — reporting on fires. The aircraft lands in the evening but the pilot’s work continues, as he has to call each of the problematic addressees to check whether the fires have been extinguished or if there are any secondary outbreaks. He also receives his route for the next day’s flight. Pilots say fields and forests need constant monitoring in such weather.

Airlifted forces suppress fires.

Molodechno Department is one of twelve at Bellesavia. Every day, 15 machines — Mi-2 helicopters and An-2 and Il-103 planes — patrol the Belarusian countryside. Another six vehicles are kept in reserve. The number of flights is doubled at the weekend and on holidays — when people tend to travel to the countryside and start fires which get out of hand.

“Since April 1st, we’ve begun intensive flights. High temperatures, lack of rain and last year’s dead-wood are creating perfect conditions for fires. The fourth level of fire hazard is a serious situation. We’ve already spent 1000 hours in the air this month; last year, 3000 were needed for the whole season,” notes Alexey Pshonko, Director of the Emergency Ministry’s Bellesavia.

He explains, “Brest, Grodno and Gomel regions face the most complicated situation. Apart from their own forest and field fires, they face trouble from neighbours. Recently, we observed a forest fire covering 500 hectares in Lelchitsy district of Gomel region. It arrived from Ukraine with a front of 2km. It took several days, dozens of people and the Emergency Ministry’s Mi-2 helicopter with a water bucket to extinguish it. The season is not starting well. However, we have nothing more efficient than our air patrols. All Belarusian forestries are equipped with radio — as are our planes and helicopters. On seeing a fire, the pilot reports and work starts in just 5–10 minutes. Some of our planes are equipped with water buckets, making it possible to extinguish small fires in woods and peat-bogs. Bellesavia also has 51 paratrooper-firemen whose main task is to contain fires; they tackle 25 per cent of all blazes, which few people realise.”

Meteor gathers speed. Analysts from the Emergency Ministry trust in facts alone. They believe Belarus’ ecosystems develop in waves, with a year of activity followed by two of decline. 2007 and 2008 were relatively calm — only 2134 natural fires were registered (against 3000+ this year already). “Most likely, 2009 will see a record 5500-6000 natural fires. Preliminary weather forecasts and data from the regions confirm our fears — the 4th level of fire hazard has been set up almost everywhere,” asserts Alexey Andreenko, an engineer at the Republican Centre for Emergency Management and Response’s Monitoring and Prognosing Department. “Air patrols are effective but we have other ways of finding blazes; we simultaneously use information from five American satellites. We receive photos from a National Academy of Sciences’ satellite but, sometimes, these pictures require correction to provide sufficient information. Additionally, cloudy weather renders them useless.”

Pleasingly, the new Russian Meteor satellite should help matters. Tests will last three months and, by late 2009-early 2010, Belarus will be able to receive high quality photos, regardless of the weather — at least three times a day.

Vasily Matveenko
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