As Kazakhstan marked a day of mourning on June 12 over the death of at least 14 emergency workers killed while fighting a forest fire, anger is escalating over perceptions that corruption and mismanagement may have led to the large loss of life.
According to satellite imagery, the first fires broke out in the Semei Ormany nature reserve, which lies in the northeast of the country, before midday on June 8. Within a day, the flames had spread across an area of 30,000 hectares. Within five days, that figure had doubled.
Local authorities in the Abai region initially cited lightning strikes as possible causes of the fire. Security services later investigated claims that arson may also have been at play.
Speaking to reporters on June 9, deputy Abai governor Dmitry Garikov said that efforts to put out the flames were complicated by the need to move fire-fighting equipment across many kilometers of sand dunes to the epicenter of the blaze. Garikov cited the lack of specialized vehicles and the constantly changing direction of the heat and wind as additional factors slowing down operations.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cancelled a planned official trip to Vietnam on June 11 and travelled instead to the Abai region to meet with relatives of the people killed in the fire. The wife of one victim, Tatyana Budyuk, wept as she told an ashen-faced Tokayev about the lack of resources that emergency workers had at their disposal. Her husband had to travel to the scene of fire in a private car instead of using a vehicle designed for that purpose, she said.
“Why is it that there are never any spare parts available for the vehicles in the forestry department? It seems like all the vehicles are constantly broken down, and they have nothing to fix them with,” Budyuk complained.
In an indication that the authorities are intent to take the implications of such charges head-on, video footage of this and other exchanges were posted on the presidential administration’s social media accounts.
Speculation has been rife over the past few days that the misappropriation and misallocation of funds may have been to blame for the scale of the disaster. Didar Smagulov, executive director of Adildik Zholy (Way of Justice), a public foundation, wrote in a Facebook post that on May 29, only two weeks before the fires broke out, three officials at the Semei Ormany nature reserve were sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of large-scale embezzlement.
Smagulov said that if money intended for installing early fire-detection systems had not been stolen then the deaths might have been avoided. Because the nature reserve is being run by organized crime gangs, the shortage of equipment has not been addressed and the salaries of ordinary employees languish at the low rate of around 90,000 tenge ($200), he said.
“Corruption kills again,” Smagulov wrote.
The anger has only been intensified by the way that local officials reacted to news that Tokayev was intent on visiting the site of the disaster.
Another resident in the affected area that spoke to Tokayev told him that the lack of paved roads meant that fire tracks were unable to reach the forest where blazes were raging. And yet, before the president arrived, even as the fire was still out of control, asphalt was put down in record time.
“The officials told us: ‘There are no funds to build the road.’ But when you were coming, they repaired everything,” the woman who spoke to Tokayev said.
Tokayev pledged to provide financial support to the families of the dead forestry workers and said that officials responsible for managing infrastructure would face punishment. Later that same day, the Prosecutor General's Office initiated two criminal cases over violation of fire safety requirements leading to fatalities and negligence by public officials.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.