The Borjomi Fire: An Overview

The large fire which began on August 20 in the Borjomi region near Daba village continued to spread into the evening of Wednesday despite the efforts of more than 1500 Georgian firefighters, forest workers and volunteers, employees of Georgian ministries and the aid of neighboring countries.

Firefighters struggled for seven hours on Sunday to contain a blaze which started for unknown reasons in the Tsagveri forest, Borjomi region. Residents of the nearby Daba village posted photos on Facebook asking for help during the early stages of the fire, but help came too late and the fire raged out of control for the next four days, the sharp relief of the area making it difficult for fire crews to reach the burning areas, allowing the fire to spread quickly due to windy conditions.

The first area of fire to be extinguished was that near Daba village, but even as helicopters were brought in to dump water from the Tsagveri-Daba section of the Gujarula River, the blaze could be seen breaking out in ever increasing pockets on the ridge opposite the Upper Sadgeri village. The fire also began spreading in the opposite direction towards the Timotesubani monastery. It is the same area of forest that was damaged during the Georgia-Russia 2008 August War.

Help came from many neighboring countries: two Georgian helicopters fought the blaze alongside one Azeri, one Belorussian, two Turkish and one Turkish plane. The helicopters were unable to work by night due to lack of visibility. Each could carry five tons of water at a time to drop on the forest. Diggers deepened one area of the Gujarula River near Daba village to allow the helicopters to lower their waterbags before flying up around the smoke to dump the contents on the burning mountains above.

Our journalist Katie Davies was on the ground on Tuesday afternoon and reported that the fire could be clearly seen from Upper Sadgeri on the Plateau behind Borjomi town, moving in the direction of Borjomi.

“The situation here is devastating,” Katie said. “A cloud of yellow smoke covers the valley, rising up over Borjomi and towards Bakuriani, casting an eerie glow over the town and villages below. In Borjomi, I saw a light coating of ash on some cars and the air is heavy with the smell of wood smoke. Three helicopters are working- two Georgians and one Azeri. The pilots have been flying since morning. At present, the fire is no threat to inhabited areas," Katie said, adding that “the general consensus with the local population is that the fire started naturally as it started so high above Daba village".

On Wednesday, it was reported that canisters full of petrol had allegedly been found in Borjomi forest. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) also began an investigation into glass bottle shards found near the fire that were said to smell of fuel.

The Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, went to the site to monitor the fire extinguishing work. He thanked all involved for their efforts.

“The Armenian side has offered their help and special crews are on their way to assist us,” he said on Tuesday.

The President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, also thanked all those involved in extinguishing the fire.

At the time of going to press, Prime Minister Kvirikashvili has said that the still-burning areas have been isolated from the remaining healthy section of the forest and six helicopters and 1500 people are still working on site.

Overall, since the breakout of the blaze on Sunday, 12 kilometers of road have been cut to reach the burning areas.

"The authorities have been heard saying they were unprepared for such a spread of fire- access roads and reservoirs are a must in any country with large areas of forest," Katie said.

“The situation is under control,” the Prime Minister reported on Thursday, once again thanking the governments of the countries that had expressed readiness to help put out the fire.

According to the latest reports, more than 10 hectares of land are said to have been damaged by the fire, although some say that the official estimate is lower than reality.

The Borjomi fire was not the only blaze to be reported this week, as on Wednesday some 2ha was burned in Ateni Gorge forest, Central Georgia. Global Forest Watch (GFW) reported a total of 366 fire alerts in the country this past week.

GFW is an open-source web application for monitoring global forests in near real-time. It uses cutting-edge technology and science to provide the timeliest and most precise information about the status of forest landscapes worldwide, including near-real-time alerts showing the suspected locations of recent tree cover loss.

The organization specifies that from August 16 to August 23, fire alerts from Georgian regions were as follows: Samtskhe-Javakheti – 279, Kakheti – 51, Shida Kartli – 16, Kvemo Kartli – 7, Mtskheta-Mtianeti – 6, Imereti – 5, and Abkhazia – 2.

“In 2017, a total of 692 fire alerts have so far been observed in Georgia. Last year, there were 616 alerts and in 2015, 822,” GFW claims.

United Nations Resident Coordinator and Resident Representative in Georgia, Niels Scott, was at the Emergency Headquarters for the disaster on Thursday. During the meeting with PM Kvirikashvili, Scott noted that from the very first minutes of the disaster, the Georgian government had kept the UN Geneva and Tbilisi offices informed.

“According to the UN, today, important progress has been made,” Scott said. “The Prime Minister provided successful coordination of the large-scale operation which involved 1,500 people. As a result, this serious fire is now under control. The scale of work carried out is really impressive. The presence of these people, the amount of work and hours spent during these days are clearly visible, resulting in the protection of the local population from the fire. The UN is engaged in coordinating and supporting the process. In our opinion, the operation has been very successful. I would like to congratulate every person involved in the process, including the Prime Minister, the government, and the people here, including those countries that took part. Excellent work has been done,” he concluded.

GEORGIA TODAY spoke to Salome Kukava from Agadgine.ge, a social campaign initiated in April by the Business Information Agency (BIA) and Treepex Startup in order to restore the areas damaged by fire during the August 2008 War which have been unable to rejuvenate independently. Kukava says that 80% of the trees planted in the framework of the campaign were burned in this week’s fire.

“The planting season ended on May 20 and we were planning to continue planting in September,” she told us. “32,300 trees had been planted [some 3,000 trees per hectare], but following the fire, unfortunately, only approximately 2,000 are left”.

Agadgine.ge says it will replant trees as soon as a study of the area is done, “considering the recommendations from the Ministry of Environment Protection and other institutions,” Kukava told us. “We’ll keep to all the responsibilities taken on with our campaign and of course we’ll be planting trees to replace those 30,000 that were lost in the fire”.

TBC Bank Group, Anaklia Development Consortium, Anaklia City, Coca Cola Georgia and Lisi Development have united with the pledge to restore the 10 ha of forest damaged in this week’s fire.

“In these difficult times, we’re joining our efforts, taking the responsibility to fully restore 10 hectares of the forest,” said Mamuka Khazaradze, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of TBC Bank Group. “I would like to appeal to all businessmen to join us in this initiative. Together, I’m sure we can restore the unique nature of Borjomi”.

PASHA Bank, which this year dedicated its CSR project to rehabilitating Borjomi forest, working with Agadgine.ge and Tissue Paper, has said it will continue the rehabilitation process of the burned Borjomi forest together with other companies. "We hope that the restoration will be done more effectively through our joint efforts," PASHA Bank representatives said.

In December 2016, PASHA Bank planted 2017 Georgian Pine Trees on the Daba territory and later funded the planting of an additional 500 trees as part of the Agadgine campaign. Most of those plants were destroyed by the fire.

GEORGIA TODAY encourages its dear readers to participate in the rehabilitation of the Borjomi forest via web-page: agadgine.ge/en

"Companies can also join the process by donating waste paper for recycling. Tissue Paper will collect waste paper from volunteer companies and recycle it. GEL 0.15 will be transferred to the account of Agadgine for each collected kilogram of paper. The accumulated funds will be applied to planting trees and taking care of them over the next five years," PASHA Bank said.

the GT Team

24 August 2017 21:06
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