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Are the wildfires in eastern Ukraine a form of warfare? This video suggests yes

Firefighters tackle wildfires in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Ukraine’s State Emergency Situation Service
Are the wildfires in eastern Ukraine a form of warfare? This video suggests yes

As massive wildfires raged in the government-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, a video surfaced showing what appeared to be Russian – backed militants setting grass on fire with tracer bullets.

The fires mostly occurred along a 70-kilometer long section of the frontline in Ukraine’s easternmost oblast of Luhansk, from the town of Stanytsia Luhanska up to the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Popasna. The fires started in multiple locations on the evening of 30 September and on 1 October

The strong wind and dry weather deteriorated the situation and the fires quickly spread across the area of more than 20 thousand hectares, according to the Ukrainian State Emergency Service (DSNS). In total, 32 settlements were affected by the fires, 11 people died, 19 more were injured. The fire destroyed and damaged hundreds of houses.

On 1 October, the press service of the Joint-Forces Operation led by the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region stated that the members of the Russian-occupation forces started the multiple fires,

“Yesterday, September 30, the enemy, using tracer bullets, set fire to dry grass in various parts of Luhansk Oblast. Due to the strong gusts of wind, some fire sources turned into a real elemental disaster of fire in a few hours, covering a total of more than 85 hectares,” the Facebook message of the JFO reads.

On 2 October, the third days into the fires, the Ukrainian volunteer organization “Come Back Alive” that crowdfunds support for the Ukrainian troops which are deployed along the frontline in the Donbas region, shared a video “Terrorists set fire to the grass near the positions of the Armed Forces.”

The footage shows people wearing a military uniform – allegedly members of the Russian occupation forces in Luhansk Oblast – throwing makeshift firebombs to set dry grass on fire.

According to the NGO, they received this video from the Ukrainian military of “one of the brigades, which is currently performing combat missions in Luhansk Oblast.”

The organization added,

“It is unknown how many such deliberate arsons occurred on the front line. In addition, the enemy used tracer bullets.”

The tactic of burning out vegetation is not new for the Russian occupation forces. Multiple reports on deliberate arsons of dry grass and forests in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts emerged throughout the years of the war, to clear the view on Ukrainian positions, eliminate minefields, or just attempt to set fire to Ukrainian ammunition depots close to the front.

However, the arsons and the fires they caused have previously never been so massive.

Luhansk forests on fire

Earlier in July, massive forest fires near Sievierodonetsk claimed five lives while some 400 firefighters fought them. However, the current fires dwarfed what the region saw just a few months ago.

This time, according to DSNS, almost 1,600 people and 295 pieces of equipment from seven Ukrainian provinces responded to massive fires in Luhansk Oblast. The equipment included three firefighting planes AN-32P aircraft and two helicopters. Most of the fires have been put out or localized as of 6 October, however, some fires continue.

The phone footage shows the night view of massive forest fires near Sievierodonetsk overnight into 1 October, “…now [in the morning] the whole city is full of firetrucks and smoke like in some apocalyptic movie, people [from villages] evacuated to schools. No water supply in many houses. No electricity. Electric lines damaged. There are victims and fatalities,” the comment goes:

On 1 October the fire neared the Ukrainian checkpoint near Stanytsia Luhanska and damaged some facilities there:

On the same day, a Popasna resident reported on her Twitter account,

“There are wildfires around Popasna, close to the city. The forest management facility was on fire, the KIM settlement, and [the area near the occupied town of] Zolote.”

Massive wildfires raging in forests of Luhansk Oblast have killed nine people, 14 more were hospitalized, 120 evacuated,…

Posted by Euromaidan Press on Thursday, 1 October 2020

The following Twitter video shows the village of Kapitanove, Luhansk Oblast after it was hit by the fire:

The fires destroyed a lot of households in the villages near the forests. This is an aerial view of the settlement of Voronove near Sievierodonetsk with houses obliterated by the fire,

In his comment, the author of the Voronove aerial photos says that most of the houses he saw in the village were completely ruined, others were damaged, with no house remaining intact.

The original comment reads, “Voronove today. The old pise-walled huts have rolled up in “pipes” or came apart”:

The follow-up comment of the same eyewitness of the disaster makes it clear that

“The [damaged] villages don’t really look as apocalyptic as it may seem from social media. Yes, with lots of burned down ones, pretty many houses remained intact. There are streets that burned almost completely, with the neighboring ones almost not touched by the fire.”

The aerial images of what was pine forests near Sievierodonetsk shows the damage caused by the fires:

The smoke of the fires reached cities more than 10 kilometers away from the burning forests. A local resident of Kadiivka (Russian-occupied, some 14 away from the nearest wildfire area) wrote on Twitter on 4 October,

“Since last night, a burned odor can be smelled in the city. Most probably brought here by the wind. In Luhansk (the occupied regional capital some 10 km away from the fires, – Ed), there is nothing to breathe with for the second night straight, there are a strong smell and the smoke. The forests and not just them are on fire on both banks of the Donets River.”

A pine tree forest still on fire near Sievierodonetsk on 4 October. Source.

A video dated 6 October from a firefighter’s Instagram stories shows that fires still continue near Stanytsia Luhanska:

A firefighter at work in Sievierodonetsk forests. Photo: DSNS
A firetruck marked as belonging to the 27th Fire Department of Kharkiv putting out the fire in a forest. Image: DSNS

As of the morning of 6 October, out of 10 major wildfires that included burning forests, reeds, and dry vegetation, the firefighters managed to eliminate 9 hotspots and localize the remaining one, according to DSNS. While extinguishing the fires, the firefighters did their best to protect settlements, field artillery positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and a gas distribution station near the village of Oleksandrivka.

Meanwhile, some fires remain active in the region. Volunteer Roman Donik has shared the video showing a roadside treeline on fire at about 19:00 on 6 October with a comment “Luhansk oblast is still on fire”:

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