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Burnt Villages and Ash: Consequences of the Zhytomyr Fires
22 April, 2020
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Entire villages have been burnt to the ground in the Ovruch district of the Zhytomyr region, Ukraine. April 21, 2020. The forests are still smoldering. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

For two weeks, Zhytomyr’s forests have been burning. The Zhytomyr region in central Ukraine, about 140 kilometers from the capital of Kyiv, has seen massive forest fires destroy entire villages. While the causes of the blaze are still unknown and investigation continue, nearby villagers claims that the forest came from the forest – and not from bonfires.

Hromadske traveled to the Ovruch district in the Zhytomyr region to speak with the local government and residents about how to best help them, and what they plan to do after the fires burned down their village.

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“Come here, miss,” says a priest carrying holy water and a censer to me in the village of Lychmany. 

The doors of the church are stuck with a notice saying that it’s closed for quarantine, but Easter services are still being held inside. Believers in masks and banners circle the building. Then, the priest splashes holy water on the procession. Some drops fall onto the photographer and operator that have come with me to this village.

Пасхальная служба в церкви в селе Личманы, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаAn Easter service in the church in Lychmany, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine. April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

A boy on a bicycle near the ruins of a house. Only a few days the house was still standing. Lychmany, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine. April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

Lychmany is set almost in the middle of the forest. It’s a small village – less than 30 people all told – and most of them are believers. Next to it, through a thick forest, lies another village, Mahdyn. 

On April 16, fires hit both villages. The entirety of Mahdyn burned down. Only by the remains of stone ovens, looking like memorial pedestals and sticking out in the middle of an otherwise empty field, can it be understood that these were once houses.

“All the houses in the village were wooden, covered not with tiles, but ordinary thatch. And the thatch was? Completely dry. There was this wind strongly driving the fire. There wasn’t any point in fighting it. On the edge of the village, the first house was already smoking. We only took out the tractor, let out the sheep and cows. And then the fire was already ahead of us,”  Ihor, a resident of Mahdyn, told me.

I met Ihor on the road to the village. He was walking a herd of sheep, wearing rubber boots and a raincoat in which he stores his documents. He says it’s all he had time to take with him.

Игорь, житель Магдина, пасет стадо овец у дороги, его дом сгорел, как и почти все дома в деревне, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаIhor, a resident of Mahdyn, watches his herd of sheep graze near the road. His house burned down, like nearly every home in the village. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

Остатки каменных печей, торчащие посреди большого пустыря, указывают на места, где до пожара стояли дома, Магдин, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаThe remains of a stone oven, sticking out in the middle of a large burnt field, showing where a house once stood prior to the fires. Mahdyn, Zhytomyr region. April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

When the fire had already reached Lychmany and Mahdyn, people began evacuating to the nearby village of Hladkovychy. Lodging was prepared for them in a local cultural center. And some people began making their way back already that evening. Now Ihor lives in temporary housing in Mahdyn, while his wife and children in the nearby village of Lychmany. 

“No one from the authorities has helped us yet. The local village council came, took notes, and that’s all. No one came to me, no one spoke to me. We don’t have any minibus routes. The bread truck comes by twice a week, nearly once a week, and so my car was my own. It was burnt to a crisp,” Ihor continues his story.

He isn’t able to shed any light on the reasons for the fire. There were some rumours of blackouts, that an electric pole fell. He also says that someone could have been burning grass but fail to control the bonfire. “People talk, but who knows how it really was. Maybe because of the earth. For a forest to grow, you need 50 years, but the earth gives up its bounty annually. Plus, there’s gas here, and amber. The fire hit us from both sides.”

Whole villages burned down in the Ovruch district, and the forest is still smoldering. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

The village of Mahdyn burned down entirely. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

All the houses in Mahdyn were wooden and had dry thatched roofs, which grabbed the top of the blaze and burned down house after house. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

Whole villages burned down in the Ovruch district, and the forest is still smoldering. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

A few dozen meters from the village are a group of firefighters. They drove here from the Volyn region during the first day of the fires. They tell me that they’ve been fighting the fires from the air, from trucks, and even with the help of people with shovels. One of the firefighters is Oleksandr Hryshchuk. He’s been in the business for seven year, but this is the first time he’s fought a blaze like this.

“[This has] never happened before. This is an anomalously dry spring, a winter without rain. Our job here is to put it out so it doesn’t spread. We can’t do anything about the places where it’s smoldering, it has to burn out. It’ll be a lot of effort to put it out. But it won’t spark up again, because the fire has already passed,” said Hryshchuk.

Пожарный Александр Грищук (третий слева) с коллегами стоят недалеко от Магдина, они приехали с Волыни еще в первый день возгорания, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаFirefighter Oleksandr Hryshschuk (third from the left) with his colleagues stand not far from Mahdyn. They arrived from Volyn during the first day of the blaze. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

In Lychmany, residents are still continuing to put out smoldering turf. It’s letting out a column of smoke right next to the houses and the church holding Easter services.

“Maybe we shouldn’t pour water on it? What if it continues to burn?” asks a woman who introduces herself as the priest’s wife, Nataliya. 

“Well it’s smoking, what can I do?” answers a man in a jean jacket.

“I guess we’ll have to bury it,” says the woman, addressing the turf, and once again heads to the fire truck to get a fresh pail of water.

Жители Личманов продолжают тушить тлеющий торф, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаResidents of Lychmany continue to put out smoldering turf. Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

Nataliya tells me that the fire struck Lychmany after lunch. First, gas canisters began to blow up, but, according to her, firefighters only showed up after everything was already burnt.

“They came here with empty barrels. They stood here and watched, only protecting the forestry stations. Our men stayed back and were putting it out. My husband says: I was in hell. And then [the firefighters] came here and started fighting back [the fires] on the houses,” says Nataliya.

Попадья Наталья помогает тушить лес, Личманы, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаThe priest’s wife, Nataliya, helps put out the forest fires. Lychmany, Zhytomyr region, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

As we speak, a man with a thick white beard comes to us from the thick of the forest and shouts.

“Get out of here, or I'll break the cameras! Hop off, you, journalists! Take a shovel, that’ll be more helpful!”

“Uncle Vanya, calm down,” says Natalia to him.

“Natalia, how many of them can come here? Have you seen what they show on TV? They come, shoot, and show that we live here homeless.”

Natalia calms the man and tells me that everyone has frayed nerves now because people are left alone with the fires.

"When it all started, everyone left us. And when several days had passed, then the firefighters suddenly appeared. So many cars drive around and planes fly when everything is already burned down."

Locals in Lychmany continue to extinguish smoldering peat, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

But firefighters are still working in the village. Yuriy and his colleagues arrived in Lychmany on the night of April 16-17, settled in the Ovruch fire department, and until now they hadn’t had a shift change.

“We were here on Friday night. We were covering the whole area where the houses are with water, fighting the fire. We arrived late - we only arrived from Popilna at 12 p.m., refueled, and arrived here. It was 1 or 2 a.m. We saved a couple of houses - all we could. When we arrived, only the ovens were left of most of the houses,” said Yuriy.

Local people say that on the day of the fire, a woman disappeared in the village. She was last seen on the street during an evacuation, but to this day she is neither among the evacuees nor in the village. Regional police say they only learned about it on April 21.

Пожарные в селе Личманы до сих пор работают, Наталья утверждает, что они приехали, когда уже почти все сгорело, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаFirefighters still work in the Lychmany village, but they arrived when almost everything was burned, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

From Lychmany we drive to another part of Ovruch district - the villages of Ostrovy and Yasenets. On both sides of the road we see burnt pines, young fir and birch trees. Dust mixed with smoke. Fortunately, we have masks in our pockets.

In Ostrovy, 21 houses were burned. The fire there also began on April 16. Mykola Stotskyi, the head of the villages of Levkovychi, Levkovytskyy Mlynok, and Ostrovy, says that the authorities have already calculated the losses - 1.5 million hryvnia. Those who lost a house in Ostrovy are settled in nearby Levkovytskyy Mlynok.

Stotskyi traveled by car to Vitaliy, one of the residents of Ostrovy, to take him to the nearby village and show him his temporary home.

“They say, they will help with money, and materials for the house. But how will it really be? Well, we hope,” says Vitaliy.

Слева направо: местные жители села Островы Виталий и Мария Турбил и староста сел Левковичи, Левковичский Млынок и Островы Николай Стоцкий, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаFrom left to right: the Ostrovy residents Vitaliy and Maria Turbyl, and the head of the villages of Levkovychi, Levkovytskyy Mlynok, and Ostrovy Mykola Stotskyi, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

The house where he lived together with his brother was burned down. Vitaliy stands at the entrance to the village, picks up a bag of potatoes, canned cucumbers and loads it into Stotskyi’s car.

Next to them stands 74-year-old Maria Turbyl, in a mask. Her house is next door, and the woman managed to save it. She tells me that the fire came to the village from the forest. And almost no one lived in the burned-down houses.

“Zelenskyy was unlucky to get into this: the virus, it’s impossible to make ends meet, people return from abroad, there is no work. Who is to blame? Even God has turned away from us,” she says.

Дом Марии Турбил не пострадал от пожара в отличие от ее соседа Виталия, дом которого сгорел дотла, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаMaria Turbyl's house was not affected by the fire unlike her neighbor’s house which was burned to the ground, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

Мария говорит, что в большинстве сгоревших домов в Островах почти никто не жил, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаMaria Turbyl says that almost no one lived in the burned-down houses in Ostrovy, Zhytomyr region, Ukraine, April 21, 2020. Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

In Ostrovy, the peatlands are also smoldering. Narrow threads of smoke seep through the spruce crowns. The land in the village is covered with ashes, parts of burned roofs and charred branches.

We drive towards Yasenets. I have maps printed with me, but we navigate by the river that runs along the whole road. It is difficult to travel because it’s a unpaved road, covered with pits, and we do not really understand if we’d chosen the right direction. And then the driver says that he will not go any further, because the road has turned to sand and the car can get stuck. We turn around. We will not see Yasenets today.

Земля в селах усыпана пеплом, кусками сгоревшей кровли и обугленными ветками, Житомирская область, 21 апреля 2020 годаPhoto: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

We head back to Ostrovy again. I start taking photos of the burned houses. Next to the bus stop I meet Hanna. She is waiting for a car to take her to a nearby village. Hanna has lived in Ostrovy for 35 years, worked as a librarian at the local cultural center, and conducted a census in the village. Here she married and buried her husband. She moved in with her son four years ago. When the fire started, they were not letting her go to Ostrovy.

"My son said, you won’t be able to stand it, you will die as soon as you see it. I was begging to let me go here all those days. I thought I'll come and I won't cry. I never imagined it would be so hard. They say the houses are empty but each house has its owner. I bought it, I refused a lot for myself in order to scrape together the pennies. I put everything into it - here are all my memories, my home, I am registered here, and I want to be buried here."

 Photo: Irakli Dzneladze / hromadske

READ MORE: Locals Fight Massive Fires in Ukraine's Zhytomyr Region (VIDEO)

/By Tetiana Bezruk

/Translated by Romeo Kokraitski and Vladyslav Kudryk