GB No. 9, autumn 1992
"We prefer not to think about what has been poisoning us. What difference does it make if we cannot leave the place anyway? We used to live in one of the cleanest regions of Silesia,and right now they are telling us those times are positively over, no health-resort status for us any more".
Around the town of Kuźnia Raciborska "going into the woods" has recently taken a new meaning - in the aftermath of the great forest fire that devoured 10.000 ha of forested area (and not 50.000 ha as anticipated) - it now means walking through the landscape of burnt out tree stumps sticking up from powdery, grey ash. It's like loosing only one lung, they say around here, it could have been much worse, really. Well, the remaining lung, in a manner of speaking, has long been suffering from tuberculosis, clogged up with industrial dust, absorbing large amounts of lead and whatnots, reply to it the more sceptically minded ones. Without complex countermeasures the whole region of Silesia may soon look like a setting from a grim science-fiction movie.
It is not without reason that the forests around Kuźnia Raciborska have been dubbed "the lungs of Silesia". Although around 170 ha of the forested area still remains in the Katowice region, several times more that had been lost in the great fire, the area of the disaster happens to be crucial in terms of the local ecology. The burnt down forests acted as a natural barrier against the industrial air pollution from the Upper Silesia and the Kędzierzyn-Koźle region, at the same time absorbing great amounts of carbon oxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead and hosts of other pollutants being blown in by the wind from the neighbouring Czecho-Slovakia.
Everyone was anticipating the worst, should the stronger winds blow from the direction of the Moravian Gate. For the time being no significant increase of pollution has been observed in the area. People continue to live in this ashen landscape and apparently still have plenty of fresh air to breath. The Silesian ecologists and doctors have very few doubts that the recent disaster will have a significant impact upon the already poor standard of public health in the local populace, for the region has thus been left dangerously exposed to the multiple hazards of industrial pollution, having been stripped of the protective green belt, hitherto provided by the forests. The towns of Gliwice, Zabrze, Knurów and Rybnik will have, as a result, a bigger share in absorbing the regional industrial pollution.
It has been determined in recent years on the basis of the specific research, conducted in Europe that in all fire zones the number of allergy sufferers (particularly amongst the children and infants) is prone to a dramatic increase, one third of asthmatics experiences a noticeable exacerbation of symptoms, there is a much greater incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and a significant increase in premature births. The researchers are quite positive that Silesia will not be an exception to the rule. Already one third of the newborn babies in the Katowice region are being delivered prematurely, every other person sufferes from some sort of allergy, whilst nearly two thirds of all deaths are caused by the cardiovascular diseases.
"That is exactly what we need", sarcastically observe the Silesian ecologists. "In the region where we can barely manage to control the pollution caused by the antiquated industry, criss-crossed by the tangle of railway lines and roads, the sky spiked with thousands of smoke stacks, where there are fewer healthy trees than people, where the funding for the environmental protection is proportionally the smallest in the whole country, we get yet another major disaster on our hands"...
"Can someone please tell me how can I manage the communal finance when we have just spend 5,5 billion zł on putting out the forest fire and the whole budget does not exceed 6,5 bln zł?" - asks in desperation the Mayor of Kuźnia Raciborska, Witold Gacek. "How can we fund the health service, education, local investments?"
The Polish parliament and the government are faced with much the same question. The gravity of the situation is best observed upon the isolated example of a single commune, however. Although every commune is meant to maintain some sort of financial self government, in practice it means that when faced with a natural disaster of this magnitude, there is precious little it can do in the matter, and the central funding simply becomes indispensable. The market value of the burnt down timber alone has been estimated at some 600 bln zł. The fire-related expenses of the communes in the region came up to 11 bln zł, while the property lost as a direct result of the fire was valued at around 3 bln zł.
The regional Voluntary Fire Brigades spent 1,4 bln zł in the course of the emergency; they should be fully reimbursed by the Management of the National Forests, if not for the fact that their coffers are empty as well. On top of that, the Voluntary Fire Brigades lost 1,6 bln zł worth of their own fire fighting equipment, antiquated as it was. The overall cost is further increased by the involvement of the local medical corps, the territorial army, and the specific damage to property sustained by the local companies and manufacturers.
One has to bear in mind that everyone involved is determined to apply for the full reimbursement of the above listed costs. Many companies, though, that were either directly involved in the fire fighting or sustained permanent damage to property have not only refrained from making an official application for the reimbursement, they decided to write off the expenses as their own losses. So far some 3 bln zł had been donated by the Governor, 0,5 bln by the RYBNIK power station, 750 mln came from the Silesian District Management of the State Railways (the cost of transporting fire fighting water by rail) and 500 mln zł from President Wałęsa.
Everyone is presently waiting for some more tangible financial support to be injected into the stricken area, though whether it will ever happen is a matter of conjecture. The Governor has applied for 15 bln zł to be allocated to the area from the central budget but the sources in the Governor's office are in a rather sceptical disposition.
"We are constantly receiving one sort of missive or another from the Centre refusing grants for specific purposes" - says A. Szczeponek - "It would not be a bad idea altogether, if the funding could be actually found right here, i.e. we would be allowed to spend the money we have on the measures designed to counter the results of the fire, instead of having to pay it into the central budget in the first place. We know that MPs from both Opole and Silesia are doing some pretty intensive lobbying in Warsaw to that effect, but again, it is simply difficult to say what will eventually come out of it all..."
"We have even been thinking of setting up the special fund for this kind of emergency in the future, so that we could always fall back on some sort of financial reserve, if need be" - adds Mr Szczeponek.
"This year all communes situated in the stricken region applied to the Governor that the region be officially declared as "the area of natural disaster" - interjects St. Olejniczak, the spokesman for the Governor. "Unfortunately, according to the stipulations of the 1952 Act [on Natural Disasters] a fire does not fall within this category, and on top of that, even if the region be declared "the area of natural disaster", the allocation of extra government funding need not follow automatically".
Yet the extra funding has to be found, somehow. The foresters have established that the price of the re-cultivation of the burnt down area alone would come up to 1,2 bln zł. Some 120 mld zł should be injected annually into the region of Katowice to recultivate only 6.000 ha of the burned forests - most fire damage was sustained by the Opole region.
A few pragmatic principles have been adopted in regard to the planned re-cultivation of the burnt down forests. Firstly, there will have to be the mixed forests, effectively resistant to air pollutants, draughts, pests and local subsidance, due to intensive mining of sand and metal ores, etc. The local sand pit near Kuźnia Raciborska has been recently closed down and turned into a water reservoir. The conifers have been rejected in favour of the resistant birches, oaks and alders.
The local government officials are of the opinion that since the region has been made so barren by a natural disaster, it would not be such a bad idea altogether, if it could be redeveloped in a sensible way. For starters, a new recreational and tourist centre is thus to be sited in the existing buildings of the historic post-Cistersian monastery, a modern college of agriculture and forestry is also to be established in the area to take proper care of the complex programme of re-forestation, so that the area would eventually be reminiscent of its 18th century look.
The successful refurbishment and adaptation of the existing historic property in the area with a view to enhancing the tourist appeal of the whole locality may eventually turn the region into one of the biggest tourist attractions in Poland, possibly also in Europe, or such is the futuristic vision spun by the bold planners.
For the time being, the residents of Kuźnia Raciborska are treating the future visions like science-fiction, but would not mind seeing for themselves a single healthy tree taking root amongst the ashes.
"Dziennik Polski" 30.10.-1.11.92
transl. by Sigillum Ltd.