A Russian firefighting plane dropped on Tuesday more than 200 tons of water on a nature reserve in Armenia engulfed by one of the country’s worst wildfires in decades.
The Russian government dispatched the Ilyushin-72 heavy aircraft at the request of Armenian authorities struggling to contain the blaze that broke out in the Khosrov Forest State Reserve on Saturday.
The special plane capable of carrying 42 tons of water at a time carried out six flights from an airbase in Yerevan to the mountainous area southeast of the Armenian capital throughout the day. The Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations said the water dropped by it had a “considerable” impact on its continuing efforts to contain the fire. It said the aerial firefighting operation will resume on Wednesday morning.
As the Russian plane flew over burning trees, bushes and other vegetation dozens of Armenian firefighters, joined by over a hundred army soldiers and 55 forestry workers, waited on the ground for the resumption of their firefighting efforts.
“Nobody is allowed to enter the reserve until the plane finishes its work,” Mushegh Ghazarian, the chief of the national Rescue Service, explained at the scene. He cited safety reasons.
Ghazarian coordinated the ground operation and communicated with Minister for Emergency Situations Davit Tonoyan through a radio in the presence of reporters. “Black smoke has turned white,” he told Tonoyan when asked about the first results of the Ilyushin-72 flights. “Mr. Minister, if they continue like this we will finish the job.”
Earlier in the day, President Serzh Sarkisian held an emergency meeting with Tonoyan and other officials involved in the effort. “I want to thank those people and structures that are battling the fire,” he said at the meeting. “And special thanks to our Russian partners who quickly responded to our request and are now actively involved in this important work.”
The Khosrov reserve encompasses roughly 25,000 hectares of land, around 9,000 of which is covered with forests originally planted by a 4th century Armenian king, Khosrov III. Officials said on Tuesday that the fire has already destroyed about 400 hectares of woodland.
Some environment protection groups have blamed the Rescue Service and other divisions of Tonoyan’s ministry for the scale of the damage, saying that the authorities were not prepared for coping with such a calamity. Ministry officials reject the criticism. They argue that the mountainous terrain makes is practically impossible for them to deploy fire engines near the blaze.
The Khosrov reserve is also a major wild animal sanctuary. Ghazarian insisted that brown bears, wild boars, foxes, vultures and hundreds of other species inhabiting the area not in danger.
“Animals are smarter than us,” the Rescue Service chief told journalists. “They left the burning area long ago. We just need to save the trees.”