National Geographic : 2002 Aug
panel-but the collective response is a shrug and a return to the road, full speed ahead. So I'm not surprised the next morning when we board our first Mi-8, an 18-wheeler of a helicopter that is Russia's aerial firefighting work horse, and there are no seat belts in sight-and practically no seats. Alex has taken our visit as an opportunity to host a half dozen cronies on a weekend fishing trip in the mountains, and when we land in a field to pick them up, gear gets piled willy-nilly between the two huge fuel tanks-a rubber boat here, an outboard motor there-and everyone plops down on whatever looks most comfortable. That afternoon, over vodka shots at the fishing camp, Alex explains the Russian way of doing things. He's been to California and Idaho to see how American firefighters work, and when he thinks of riding in their helicop ters-all strapped in by seat belts and regulations-he laughs at the mem ory. "No move, no speak!" he says. You can't size up a fire if you can't move around and look at it! You can't make a plan if everyone has to be quiet! "And they call Russians crazy!" the pilot cuts in. Having barely survived their driving, I'd say "crazy" seems about right, but you've got to be at least a little crazy to jump from a plane into a fire, and the Russians have been doing it longer than anybody. "The idea of actually parachuting into fires was a Soviet invention," I am later told by Stephen Pyne, an American wildfire historian who is one of the few people outside Russia who know much about Avialesookhrana, Meet the enemy: a smallish fire creeping through the boreal forest understory. Most fires in Russia look more or less like this, but in the right conditions they can swell into confla grations. The best way to keep the lid on is to catch fires when they're small.