State to legalize controlled burns

PHOTO: Päästeamet

Uncontrollable wildfires, like the one raging at the Defense Forces’ central polygon right now, could be contained in the future upon entry into force of an amendment to give the Defense Forces, Defense League, and state forest manager RMK the right to set controlled fires.

Amendments to the fire safety act are being prepared by the Ministry of the Interior and will reach the Riigikogu by year’s end.

National defense organizations and RMK will be given the right to use controlled burns when they see fit, similarly to how it is in Latvia and Finland. Deliberately setting ground fires has been banned in Estonia since 2010: it is only allowed inside two weeks after the last snows have melted in spring.

The Ministry of Defense is the most eager to see the new law enter into force after witnessing the effectiveness of controlled burns at the Ainaži polygon in Latvia.

“The idea of this method is that ground that has been burned is much less likely to catch on fire again,” said adviser at the ministry’s rescue and crisis regulation department Mari Tikan. “It will reduce the likelihood of fires to a minimum.”

Military training areas catching fire is a constant and costly nuisance in Estonia. A Defense Forces exercise caused the destruction of an old cattle-shed complex in Valga County and a barn in Urvaste, Võru County in May of 2014.

The largest forest fire of 2009 in Kuusalu rural municipality in Harju County was also started by a training exercise. The other reason for amending the law follows nature conservation considerations.

Heather and burnt woodland are in danger of disappearing from Estonia as forest fires have been effectively extinguished and prevented. The only surviving moorlands can be found in North Kõrvemaa and the Suursoo nature preserve in Lääne County.

RMK will be using controlled burns to recreate these landscapes, just as has been done with considerable success in Northern Finland. The organization promises to work with the armed forces and volunteer firemen to find the best practices.

Mari Tikan said the government will prescribe documentation to be filled out before a permit for a controlled burn can be issued as well as the procedure of notification and coordination. Rules concerning suitable weather, team size, water reserves, and burn sectors will be introduced by interested persons.

The defense ministry has already placed an order for a controlled burn guide. It is no secret that once the law takes effect next year, the first patches of land to be burned will be the Defense Forces’ central polygon’s target areas. Controlled burns might also be used at other polygons at a later time.

The ministry’s environment and planning adviser Tuuli Vors said that fires would be set one sector at a time. “No one is planning to set fire to hundreds of hectares of land; controlled burns would be used on 20-30 hectares at a time. Emphasis would be on areas that have artillery targets which sport the greatest fire hazard. It is our goal to keep landscapes open,” she described.

Burns should be rapid and the area controlled from all sides. “We are constructing a network of roads at the central polygon one aim of which is to have areas we could define and control.”

Burns would not take place every summer, but every three to four years. “It depends on how long these burnt areas will stay that way.”

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