YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Helped by a water-dropping Russian aircraft, firefighters in Armenia appeared to have largely extinguished on Wednesday a massive wildfire that erupted in a nature reserve southeast of Yerevan late last week.
The Ilyushin-72 plane, which joined the firefighting efforts on Tuesday, carried five more flights from a Yerevan airfield to the Khosrov Forest State Reserve throughout the day, dropping another 200 tons of water on the mountainous area.
The Armenian Ministry for Emergency Situations said the jet sent by the Russian government “created security zones and a humid environment in order to prevent a repeat outbreak of fires.” The blaze was mostly contained on Tuesday and all but extinguished by the following evening, according to statements issued by the ministry.
“The fire is contained and under control,” Emergency Situations Minister Davit Tonoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) at the scene.
Tonoyan said the firefighters and other emergency service workers are now engaged in “post-extinguishment works” aimed at preventing renewed outbreaks. They were joined by more than a hundred Armenian army soldiers.
Heavy rain forecast for Wednesday evening was expected to give a further boost to the ongoing efforts at the Khosrov reserve. In Tonoyan’s words, the Russian plane will again fly over the area on Thursday morning before the authorities in Yerevan determine whether it is still needed by them.
The fire broke out on Saturday and spread quickly due to high temperatures and strong winds. According to preliminary government estimates, it burned about 400 hectares of woodland in the next four days.
The Khosrov reserve occupies roughly 25,000 hectares of land, around 9,000 of which is covered with forests.
Another major wildfire broke out near a village in the southeastern Vayots Dzor province on August 10 and reportedly spread to 650 hectares of land partly covered with trees. The authorities took four days to put out that blaze.
Critics have blamed the Rescue Service and other divisions of Tonoyan’s ministry for the scale of the damage, saying that the authorities were caught unprepared for such calamities. Ministry officials reject the criticism. They argue that mountainous terrain made is practically impossible for them to use fire engines.
The Armenian Ministry of Environment Protection, which oversees the country’s forests and nature reserves, is also facing criticism. Environment Protection Minister Artsvik Minasian rejected on Wednesday claims that his agency did not take necessary precautions despite weeks of unusually hot weather.
“There is some silly information that’s being circulated,” he said. “In particular, it is claimed that specially protected areas were taken under control only after these fires erupted. That is not the case.”
Minasian cited special fire warnings which he issued to forestry officials on July 17. “All of our facilities were put on high alert,” he said.
Law-enforcement authorities suspect that both wildfires were caused by human negligence. They have launched criminal investigations but not charged anyone yet.