Ukrainian soldiers battle wildfires, along Russian-backed separatists, in war-torn Donbas

An explosion at a Ukrainian military facility, where the fire broke out a day ago. Novoyanysol, Donetsk Oblast, 23 September 2017. Screenshot: Twitter @MVS_UA

An explosion at a Ukrainian military facility, where the fire broke out a day ago. Novoyanysol, Donetsk Oblast, 23 September 2017. Screenshot: Twitter @MVS_UA 

News, War in the Donbas

On 22 September, a fire broke out at a Ukrainian munitions depot not far from the frontline city of government-controlled Mariupol, forcing the evacuation of the military personnel from the facility and 30 local residents from a nearby village. The windy weather spread the fire and several more blazes erupted near the frontline, making the residents of Donetsk Oblast experience an August déjà vu when the wildfires raged almost every day. Some of the August wildfires were of natural causes, other were intentionally caused by Russian-hybrid forced attempting this way to clear up defensive minefields near Ukrainian strongholds and smoke out soldiers from the trenches.

On 22 September about 15:00, a Ukrainian military unit near the village of Novoyanysol 30 km northwest of Mariupol caught fire, according to the Defense Ministry. At first, the adjacent farmland field had blazed then the wildfire spread to the military facility. The fire forced the evacuation of the military personnel and 30 people living in a nearby village. At 16:20 the ammunition started detonating, the Donetsk Oblast police reported. Overnight into the next day, the fire was contained. As the State Emergency Service (SES) informed, the fire was extinguished about 6 a.m., 270 first responders and 61 vehicles have been engaged in the emergency response.

On the next day, the official Twitter account of the Interior Ministry shared a video showing the scale of devastation wrought by the wildfire near Novyanysol and further blaze at the military depot. The ammunition is still detonating on the next-morning footage of the localized fire:

As of 25 September morning, the fire at the ammunition depot near Novoyanysol was extinguished. Later the Emergency Service reported that as of 14:30 its units have finished activities at the facility as they removed 1954 pieces explosive ordnance and 10 tons of metal fragments from the area of 42 ha.

According to preliminary data, the fire at the ammunition depot caused no casualties.

The police opened criminal proceedings and a preliminary assessment qualified the case under Article 194 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (intentional damage of property). This means that the investigators don’t rule out the possibility of arson as we could see it on 23 March at missile and artillery storage facilities located near Balakliya, Kharkiv Oblast.

The day of front-line wildfires

On 22 September, wildfires raged not just in Novonysol near Mariupol. Local residents reported fires in multiple locations of Donetsk Oblast. One of the reports came also from Luhansk Oblast:

Residents of the occupied regional capital, Donetsk wrote about wildfires near the city, the wind backed the fires in the region. From 10 meters per second overnight into October 22, the wind developed into near gale force by the evening, blowing at near-hurricane speeds up to 22 meters per second.

A blaze also broke out in the city itself:

The area north of Dokuchaevsk caught fire too:

A Ukrainian entry-exit checkpoint in Novotroitske near occupied Dokuchaevsk closed earlier about 17:00 due to a fire on the adjacent field. Usually, the crossing point operates until 18:30.

Local residents of the Donetsk suburb city of Makiivka have published photographs of a glow of the fire raging on the outskirts:

“The entire skyline is blazing… it looks horrible when seeing it live,” a post in a local Makiivka social network group reads:

Later Donetskers published photographs of firefighters dowsing a grass fire in Makiivka:

Fires also burst near one of southward Donetsk roads:

The occupied village of Hryshky is situated in the same area south of Donetsk:

Some reports on wildfires came even from an adjacent peaceful Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on September 22:

22 September was the day of a flashback into nearly the entire August all along the frontline.

August Lucifer

Both Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the Ukraine’s eastern war-torn region of the Donbas are situated in the dry steppe zone. Grass usually dries up there by the end of summer. If the summer is too hot and dry, a very high fire hazard is observed throughout the southern and eastern oblasts of Ukraine. As per normal, firefighters can quickly contain wildfires in steppe, but it becomes a problem when a field, a meadow, or an arroyo forest catches fire near the contact line, separating Ukraine from its occupied part in the Donbas.

In the beginning of August, a heatwave, dubbed ‘Lucifer’, struck southern Europe and moved through Ukraine’s occupied Donbas further northwest. It was the longest heatwave for 14 years, since 2003.

Map by woeurope.eu from the first week of August showing the heatwave hitting southern and western Europe.

Map by woeurope.eu from the first week of August showing the heatwave hitting southern and western Europe.

The average daytime temperature soared up to 38℃ in Donetsk and Luhansk, while the mercury peaked at highs of well over 40℃.

The wildfires raged for most of August from both sides of the entire front line. The dry steppe vegetation easily caught fire from explosions amid the high temperatures brought by the heatwave from the southwest. The number of fires significantly decreased by the end of August when the heat dropped by 20℃ and the so-called back-to-school ceasefire was agreed by the Minsk group for Donbas settlement, and military actions started becoming not that active.

A glimpse into the hot August in the Donbas

Fields, meadows, forests burned as near the front line as in the rear from both sides of the front.

The images show a field of grain on fire west of Avdiivka, relatively far from the contact line on 8 August:

On August 12, a forest, grass, and woodlines were on fire near Rovenki, a city in the deep rear of the occupied Luhansk territory 65-100 km away from the front:

Another report from the rear occupied town of Khrustalne reads:

And here is the typical steppe wildfire caused by military activity:

Marinka is a Ukraine-controlled southwest suburb of occupied Donetsk. An attack from Donetsk direction caused the wildfire on 12 August northeast of Marinka. Other 12 August reports from Marinka read:

15:40 “I’m standing at the zero [=frontline checkpoint]. The ongoing battle left of me [=north of the checkpoint]. The checkpoint is closed”
19:36
“Now blazing up even more, ashes even fly to the household”
19:50 There’s hardly a breath in the air. An odour of dust with burnt
20:26 No air to breathe. The smoke is like a fog
20:59 “If they won’t bomb out Marinka, then will burn it, if not burn then would poison with the smoke of blazes. All in smoke since 4 p.m.”
22:14
In the evening roof slates were heard cracking [=due to fire] and the black smoke – houses were burning at  [=northeast] 22:19 It’s impossible to open the window now, those nasty smell

The fires raged in the Donbas until the end of August. Here is a late August report from the frontline village of Vesele near Donetsk:

Steppe arsons as warfare

One of the Ukrainian militaries deployed near the village of Taramchuk south of Donetsk gave a short summary of the latest frontline wildfire erupted on 22 September:

The midground along the front line is often the scorched earth covered with ashes, especially in the areas of the strongholds. In their interview with KyivPost, Ukrainian soldiers from the 53rd Mechanized Brigade deployed near Ukraine-held Troitske (the area of Popasna, Luhansk Oblast) told how the Russian-hybrid forces use arsons as warfare. As the wind blows west towards Ukrainian positions, the enemy suddenly starts shooting mortar flares or tracer bullets into the field to ignite a fire close to the Ukrainian fortifications. Once the dry grass blazes up in flames, the fire expands rapidly, driven towards Ukrainian positions by the wind.

The purpose of such attacks is crippling Ukraine’s forward defensive obstacles and mined areas in front of defensive lines, as well as uncovering new fighting positions and command posts.

The Ukrainian soldiers are in no position to tackle the blazes — as the choking smoke spreads over the trenches, Russian-hybrid forces open fire, raking the lines with small-arms fire from automatic weapons, while sniper teams hunt for targets amid the reek, according to KyivPost.

The video shows a fire in Zaytseve, a Ukraine-controlled settlement in north Horlivka on 19 August:

The Ukrainian members of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC) stated that the fire in Zaytseve was caused by incendiary rounds fired by Russian-hybrid forces.


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