National Geographic : 2002 Aug
BT GLENN HODGES PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARK THIESSEN BOTH NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STAFF A LEXANDER SELIN, the head of central Siberia's aerial firefighting force, is a man who knows how to make himself clear, even in English, a lan guage he barely knows. The police, he tells us, are "garbage." Vodka is "gasoline." His driver? A "Russian barbarian." And caution ... well, caution doesn't seem to be part of his vocabulary. Caution is for sissies and Ameri cans. "No seat belts in Russia!" Alex barks as we speed away from a police checkpoint soon after our arrival in Krasnoyarsk, he and his driver unbuckling their belts in defiant unison. After a few days in his care we will come to call Alex, simply, Big Boss. A thick-fingered, barrel-chested Siberian who hurls his words like shot-put balls, Alex rules a fiefdom the size of Texas with an army not much bigger than the Texas A&M marching band. His 500 smoke jumpers, firefighters who jump from planes and rappel from helicopters, cover a swath of boreal forest that stretches from Arctic tundra to the Mongolian border. Photographer Mark Thiessen and I have come to Siberia to see Alex's men in action, but by the time we're half way from Krasnoyarsk to Shushenskoye, 200 miles to the south, I'm not sure we'll live long enough to see a single fire. We're throttling through the mountains in a pair of fume-filled Volgas, taking curves at 90 miles an hour, passing blind on hillcrests, narrowly avoiding one head-on col lision after another-and I'm thinking wistfully back to our training in British Columbia, where Mark and I rappelled out of helicopters feeling as safe as the day we were born. Finally the lead car in our little caravan sideswipes a truck. We pull over to check the damage-a dented quarter FIBRES ACROSS RUSSIA Holding a fourth of the world's forest, Russia faces a daunting number of wild- K fires-between 20,000 and Shush 35,000 each year. Fires may burn undetected and unchallenged in the most g Large reported fires, 2001 MONGOLIA Ocean remote areas, but the coun- Scalevariesin this perspective. try's 4,000 smokejumpers SOURCE:RUSSIANAERIALFORESTFIRE CENTER(AVIALESOOKHRANA) put out thousands that no NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAPS one else can reach.