Alexander Selin, the head of central Siberia's aerial firefighting force, is a man who knows how to make himself clear, even in English, a language he barely knows. The police, he tells us, are "garbage." Vodka is "gasoline." His driver? A "Russian barbarian." And caution . . . well, caution doesn't seem to be part of his vocabulary. Caution is for sissies and Americans. "No seat belts in Russia!" Alex barks as we speed away from a police checkpoint soon after our arrival in Krasnoyarsk, he and his driver unbuckling their belts in defiant unison.
After a few days in his care we will come to call Alex, simply, Big Boss. A thick-fingered, barrel-chested Siberian who hurls his words like shot-put balls, Alex rules a fiefdom the size of Texas with an army not much bigger than the Texas A&M marching band. His 500 smokejumpers, firefighters who jump from planes and rappel from helicopters, cover a swath of boreal forest that stretches from Arctic tundra to the Mongolian border.
Photographer Mark Thiessen and I have come to Siberia to see Alex's men in action, but by the time we're halfway from Krasnoyarsk to Shushenskoye, 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the south, I'm not sure we'll live long enough to see a single fire. We're throttling through the mountains in a pair of fume-filled Volgas, taking curves at 90 miles (145 kilometers) an hour, passing blind on hillcrests, narrowly avoiding one head-on collision after another—and I'm thinking wistfully back to our training in British Columbia, where Mark and I rappelled out of helicopters feeling as safe as the day we were born. Finally the lead car in our little caravan sideswipes a truck. We pull over to check the damage—a dented quarter panel—but the collective response is a shrug and a return to the road, full speed ahead.
So I'm not surprised the next morning when we board our first Mi-8, an 18-wheeler of a helicopter that is Russia's aerial firefighting workhorse, and there are no seat belts in sight—and practically no seats. Alex has taken our visit as an opportunity to host a half dozen cronies on a weekend fishing trip in the mountains, and when we land in a field to pick them up, gear gets piled willy-nilly between the two huge fuel tanks—a rubber boat here, an outboard motor there—and everyone plops down on whatever looks most comfortable.
That afternoon, over vodka shots at the fishing camp, Alex explains the Russian way of doing things. He's been to California and Idaho to see how American firefighters work, and when he thinks of riding in their helicopters—all strapped in by seat belts and regulations—he laughs at the memory. "No move, no speak!" he says. You can't size up a fire if you can't move around and look at it! You can't make a plan if everyone has to be quiet!
"And they call Russians crazy!" the pilot cuts in.
Having barely survived their driving, I'd say "crazy" seems about right, but you've got to be at least a little crazy to jump from a plane into a fire, and the Russians have been doing it longer than anybody.
"The idea of actually parachuting into fires was a Soviet invention," I am later told by Stephen Pyne, an American wildfire historian who is one of the few people outside Russia who know much about Avialesookhrana, Russia's aerial firefighting organization. "In the 1930s these guys would climb out onto the wing of a plane, jump off, land in the nearest village, and rally the villagers to go fight the fire."
Last year Avialesookhrana celebrated the 70th anniversary of its first flight. (It would have been the 75th anniversary, but when the first plane took off from Leningrad in 1926 to look for fires, the pilot made a beeline for Estonia and defected.) Once they got going, the Soviets quickly built a program that remains to this day the largest in the world—despite a decade of post-Soviet budget cuts that have halved the ranks, from 8,000 firefighters to 4,000.