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I am a student learning the Russian language, and today I read the following news:

В Усть-Куте местные жители в Верхнем подрайоне поймали за поджогами леса поджигателей. Ими оказались первый заместитель мэра Усть-Кутского района Михаил Барс, начальник сельхозотдела администрации Усть-Кутского района Михаил Тышкивский, прессекретарь мэра района Екатерина Анисимова, специалист по ГО и ЧС администрации Усть-Кутского района Ульянов. Чиновники приехали с бензином и поджигали леса, а пожары снимали с квадрокоптера. Перед этим за несколько дней они выпустили постановление районной администрации о запрете посещения жителями рек в Усть-Кутском районе, из-за пожароопасного периода. Мы недавно писали об этом.

Инцидент произошел в 200 километрах от Усть-Кута, на границе с Жигаловским районом. Завтра утром на место поджогов выезжает оперативная группа сотрудников полиции и Следственного Комитета.

На фото видео избитый местными жителями первый заместитель мэра Усть-Кутского района Михаил Барс.

Более подробную информацию опубликуем завтра с места событий.

My translation:

In Ust-Kut, locals of the Upper Subdistrict caught people who were setting a forest on fire. The people caught turned out to be Ust-Kut District's Vice-Mayor Mikhail Bars, Ust-Kut District's Agriculture Chief Mikhail Tyshkivsky, Mayor's press secretary Ekaterina Anisimova, and Emergency Situations Specialist Ulyanov. The officials had brought gasoline with them and were setting forests on fire, filming the fire from a quadcopter. They had a few days beforehand issued an order prohibiting locals to visit rivers of Ust-Kut District, because forests are susceptible to wildfires these days. We recently reported about that.

It happened 200 kilometers away from Ust-Kut, near the border with the Zhigalovsky District. Tomorrow a task force of police and Investigative Committee will depart to the scene.

The photo and video show Ust-Kut District's Vice-Mayor Mikhail Bars after he was beaten up by the locals.

We will publish more details tomorrow from the scene.

This news has been disseminated by a number of reputable Russian news agencies (e.g., Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4). The above Russian text is from the original source, an Ust-Kut news website.

My question: How could Russian authorities be motivated to set forests on fire? What could be in it for them?


UPDATE: As @user2501323 points out, the news was also reported by an official source.

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    While I cannot comment on the specific case, deliberately started fires (controlled burn or burn-off) are part of wildfire management techniques. The fire is started at the "right" place and time to keep it controllable. – o.m. Apr 29 '20 at 10:09
  • @o.m. : If it was a part of wildfire management in this particular case, why did the police and the investigative committee get concerned? – Mitsuko Apr 29 '20 at 10:21
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    It is a real story - despite posting was originally only by so-called 'highly reputable' sources, then official sources also post this: vesti.ru/doc.html?id=3261185. Generally, it is a VERY strange story. I don't know how to explain copter video - it is just an idioty - to record your own crime. – user2501323 Apr 29 '20 at 10:30
  • @user2501323 : My first thought was that the officials wanted to use the footage in order to get money from the federal budget under the pretext of the necessity to fight wildfires in the region. Getting the money, the local officials would use it to fight natural wildfires later, and/or set up some schemes with kickbacks from wildfirefighting companies to derive own profit. – Mitsuko Apr 29 '20 at 10:43
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    @o.m.: it seems those (prescribed/controlled burns) are not legal in Russia. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/53094/… – Fizz Apr 29 '20 at 10:56
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RFERL now has a fairly lengthy article on the incident, which seems to point more in the direction of local power struggle... and reciprocal accusations between the mayor and the governors' office as to whom actually set the fire...:

Russia’s Investigative Committee said on April 29 that it had launched a preliminary investigation into a fire that occurred a day earlier near a forest on the outskirts of Ust-Kut, a Siberian town located 850 kilometers north of Irkutsk.

The committee said a local district official, who was noticed at the site, may face a charge of abuse of power.

No names or other details were provided by the committee, but Ust-Kut Mayor Aleksandr Dushin told RFE/RL that he and his associates had caught four district officials, including Deputy District Governor Mikhail Bars and the district governor's press secretary, Yekaterina Anisimova, as they -- or so Dushin alleges -- set dry grass on fire near a forest not far from Dushin's private lands.

The Ust-Kut mayor insists the four also were filming the fire using a drone, in order to accuse him later of being an arsonist.

Dushin provided RFE/RL with several videos, in one of which he is seen checking the contents of three plastic canisters aboard a boat allegedly used by the district officials to travel to the area.

The mayor says on the video that the canisters are filled with gasoline as a visibly beaten man, who was later identified as Bars, sits slumped across from him.

Ust-Kut district Governor Tamara Klimina, meanwhile, rejected Dushin's accusations, saying she had sent her deputy Bars and others to check reports about fire cells in the forest at three sites.

One of the sites was close to Dushin's private lands, where Klimina claims her associates were "taken hostage" by Dushin and his people.

According to Klimina, it was Dushin himself who set fire to dry grass and other wood waste to clean up areas around his private lands.

"Each year, Dushin uses fire for cleaning space near his farming acreage and the fire then moves deeper inside the forest.... As far as we know, those people broke Mikhail Bars' jaw and collarbone, threw Yekaterina Anisimova into the river, and forcibly took the drone and mobile phones from them," Klimina said on April 29, adding that the gasoline in the canisters was fuel for the boat.

On April 30, the head of Klimina's administration, Marina Kosygina, told the TASS news agency that Bars had been hospitalized.

Dmitry Dmitriyev, a local lawyer, told RFE/RL that the fight most likely has political roots.

Klimina, who runs the district, belongs to the Liberal Democratic Party, while Dushin is a member of the ruling United Russia party. Klimina is up for reelection later this year.


More speculative (and largely obsolete now) answer from yesterday below:

We don't [yet] know what could have motivated these guys in particular, but concealing illegal logging has been mentioned in the past as a possible reason. However an more in-depth investigation by Rosleskhoz didn't find much evidence in support of this theory (although some cases of fires originating in illegal logging ares were noted). It's often enough the case that illegal logging is done with the tacit or corrupt approval of some local authorities as such logging is often done with documentation, just not with well justified one, e.g. declaring trees to be need to be removed for "sanitary" reasons, etc.

On the other hand, per an answer to a q of mine here, it seems that starting in 2019 controlled/prescribed burns are allowed in Russia in some limited circumstances (limited to grassland apparently). So it's not entirely impossible that those local officials may have been trying to do one of those and owing to the novelty of the regulations allowing it, they were beset upon by locals unfamiliar with that (law/regulations) change. It's curious however that no press story (of those linked) mentions this possibility. So either that was out of the question (in this incident) for some reason that's obvious to the Russian press, but not to me, or the journalists who wrote about it insofar are not terribly familiar with those changes either. Interestingly, the official announcement of the launch of an investigation does mention that the fire was in grassland (next to a forest). On the other hand, some of the press reports say that it was the mayor who caught his own vice-mayor (and his alleged accomplice). So that makes the simple theory that the locals were unaware of law changes (in re controlled burns) not so plausible. Alternatively, this might be some kind of score-settling between local officials.

Less nefariously, if I'm reading some the media reports correctly, the official roughed up by the locals may have been trying to shoot some kind of instructional video, perhaps on the dangers of forest fires and/or even how to do a controlled burn.

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    Why film from a quadcopter if the aim is to hide evidence of illegal logging? And why is it the officials, not illegal logging businesses, who set forests on fire to hide the evidence? – Mitsuko Apr 29 '20 at 10:19
  • @Mitsuko: the alternative is that they were doing some kind of legal prescribed burn and the locals (who roughed them up) misunderstood or overreacted. But since none of the press articles on the incident mention that... One (pretty badly written) article says such burns are prohibited in Russia. YMMV. – Fizz Apr 29 '20 at 10:30
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    @Fizz, not agree - vesti.ru/doc.html?id=3261185 (and Mitsuko sources also mention that) - it said that catchers were lead by a mayor - so no misunderstood - that was illegal burn. But copter recording just cannot be understood, I think. Strange story. Tomorrow there would be investigators from province center, maybe story become more detailed – user2501323 Apr 29 '20 at 10:35
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    There's a longer story in English now on an obscure website wirenewsfax.com/… but it's not much more illuminating. – Fizz Apr 29 '20 at 13:18

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