The Latest Arsenal Fire

Russia’s latest military arsenal tragedy is a new chapter in an unfinished book. What follows isn’t so much news as context you haven’t seen.

According to Interfaks-AVN, a woman died on October 10 from severe injuries received from the fire and explosions which began October 7 in Ryazan oblast. Another 15 victims are reportedly stable with serious burns, injuries, or chronic conditions aggravated by smoke inhalation.

A grass fire was inexplicably allowed to reach the ammo dumps at military unit 55443 near Zheltukhino in Skopinskiy region, and it ignited munitions in open storage. It’s unclear whether the Russian MOD’s Main Missile and Artillery Directorate (GRAU) or the Western MD is responsible for the unit at present. Neither wants to be for certain.

Interfaks-AVN indicated the arsenal (once maybe the GRAU’s 97th Arsenal) consists (or consisted) of 113 warehouses and bunkers with 75,000 tons of missiles, rockets, and artillery shells (a “large portion” of which were 152-mm high-explosive fragmentation).

Munitions from other Russian Army ammo dumps were being collected at Zheltukhino, according to Komsomolskaya pravda.

More than 2,300 people living near the depot were evacuated.

Four VTA Il-76 aircraft, and one Mi-26 and one Mi-8 helicopter were used against the fire as water tankers, TVZvezda reported. Izvestiya said five helos. In 36 fixed and 763 rotary-wing flights, they dropped 4,700 tons of water on the flames.

Izvestiya added that 650 servicemen and nearly 200 pieces of equipment — including 120 EOD personnel and 32 special vehicles (likely Uran-6 and Uran-14 robotic mine clearance vehicles) — were used to battle the fire.

Russian media reported the fire was localized on the evening of October 8 and controlled on October 10.

Kommersant reported the fire and explosions damaged 430 structures, public facilities, apartment buildings, and private homes. If not completely burned down, they have broken windows, partially collapsed roofs, and damaged walls. More than 500 families received 10,000 rubles in immediate emergency funds from the RF government.

Izvestiya relayed some (but not all) of the history of Russia’s recent arsenal fires.

A major fire and explosions rocked the 31st Arsenal and the city of Ulyanovsk in 2009.

A fire and explosions at Pugachevo, Udmurtia in 2011 caused the evacuation of 30,000 people and damaged 3,000 buildings. But Pugachevo (GRAU’s 102nd Arsenal) proved a persistent problem; new fires and explosions occurred there in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

There were other disasters in 2011 — at the 99th Arsenal in Bashkiria and in Ashuluk where six troops died and 12 were hurt. In 2012, there were two fires with explosions in Orenburg and one in Primorye.

Then soon-to-be ex-minister of defense Serdyukov exerted some serious control over Russian munitions storage and dismantlement. But this came too late and, along with his other problems, made him expendable to the Kremlin.

In early 2012, Deputy Defense Minister Dmitriy Bulgakov said the military planned to complete 35 modern arsenals, outfitted with hundreds of bunkers, before 2015 for 90 billion rubles. It also began explosive destruction of a large quantity of outdated munitions. Work on new ammo storage continued through 2018.

But the MOD hasn’t been able to catch up with the problem. It hasn’t offered a comprehensive assessment of the construction effort. So it’s safe to conclude it’s taking longer and accomplishing less than what’s needed.

A couple cases in point. On August 5, 2019, the ammo depot in Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk territory burned. About 16,000 people living within a 20-km radius had to be evacuated. One person died and 40 were injured.

On May 9, 2020, a grass fire ignited small caliber ammo at Pugachevo. The fire covered 15 hectares, but was put out without a disaster like previous incidents there.

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