Today the Russian government has banned the burning of dry grass on agricultural land and conservation areas. This might sound somewhat trivial, perhaps for those who have never witnessed a forest fire or had a chance to stand in line with firefighters. Let me tell you my story of lending a small hand in a big fight.

Volunteers try to extinguish dry grass fires in Astrakhan Nature Reserve © Igor Podgorny / GreenpeaceDry Grass Fire in the Astrakhan Nature Reserve © Igor Podgorny / Greenpeace

In the summer of 2010 when the smog from burning peatlands reached my home in Moscow, I could hardly make out a house across the street. When 50,000 premature deaths became the cost of the fire disaster, I was a lawyer by profession. I didn’t know anything about Greenpeace; I didn’t know that Greenpeace Russia was knocking on all the governmental doors foreseeing the looming catastrophe. The Government instead chose to call Greenpeace “alarmists” and officials were convinced that the situation was under control. But hell no…

Every spring, Russian people living in rural areas start burning dry grass — a traditional practice to clear the land whilst working on fields. This practice causes thousands of forest fires every year and turns into a real disaster with dire consequences: human casualties and environmental devastation. At the same time, climate change is dramatically aggravating wildfires... During the the last few years the potential for blazes got significantly worse.

Back in 2010, news articles gave the impression of war reports, with villages burnt and lives lost. Thousands of people were stocking up on goods, food and money for the fire victims. Me and a friend decided that we needed to clean up our karma and go for a day or two to fight fires as volunteers. Then my life took a hefty turn…

Volunteers try to extinguish dry grass fires in Astrakhan Nature Reserve 12/03/2015 © Igor Podgorny / GreenpeaceVolunteers try to extinguish dry grass fires in Astrakhan Nature Reserve 12/03/2015 © Igor Podgorny / Greenpeace

In 2011 and by chance, I joined the Greenpeace Wildland Fire Program as a volunteer and in 2012 I became a Greenpeace employee. Volunteers are the backbone of this program. They fight fires, drive our cars, they repair and upgrade the equipment. More than 300 volunteers (including foreigners) were trained by Greenpeace Russia. Those people spend their vacations and days off to wake up at 5am and travel a few hundred miles in a rusty van to be on guard and extinguish wildland fires. They live in tough conditions for weeks on end, watching over the borders of the Atstrakhan Biosphere Reserve. They fight flames twice as large as their height.

For six long years, the Greenpeace Russia Wildland Fire Program worked hard to accomplish the ban of dry grass. We calculated that in the spring 90% of forest fires happen because locals burn dry grass, 5-6 million hectares of forest burn every year. Over the last six years, the Greenpeace Russia firefighting team spent 660 days of fieldwork fighting fires. 300 volunteers helped us during our expedition, 500 donors made our work possible. We covered 300,000 kilometres and put out 300 fires. We also ran awareness programmes such as 'Spring without fire', to support farmers to shift to safer methods of clearing the land — like cutting rather than burning grass. More than 200,000 people supported us by sending letters to President Putin asking him to ban the burning of dry grass. This popular support for the Greenpeace demands finally brought victory.

From now on, local authorities and police have the right to prevent any kind of grass burning. Now the ban is in place, anyone who causes a wildfire will be treated as an arsonist. We expect that this new law will help to alter age-old behaviour. A critical step to help save our forests.

Astrakhan Nature Reserve 12/03/2015 © Igor Podgorny / GreenpeaceAstrakhan Nature Reserve 2/03/2015 © Igor Podgorny / Greenpeace

I expected this blog to be a personal story of a lawyer turned firefighter. I can recall more than few memorable stories about fires I fought. But to be honest, the story of this victory is not personal. It’s a story of thousands of people who made this victory possible. Thank you.

 Anton 'Benny' BeneslavskyAnton Beneslavsky is a Forest Campaigner and Firefighter with Greenpeace Russia.