Burning to put out fires.

The Unimog fighting fires in Latvia's forests.

2019 was a busy year for the world's firefighters – the world was literally in flames, and not just south of the equator but also at the Polar Circle: fires in the Arctic, fires in the Amazon rainforest, fires in the Australian bush and fires in Indonesia. Forest fires were raging pretty much everywhere. Even in central European countries such as Germany and Great Britain, or even in the Scandinavian states, large-scale fires were tearing through woodlands, in the process endangering both nature and humans alike.

With fires threatening to destroy vast areas of forests in Latvia and thus also one of the country's most important economic sectors – the wood industry – the Unimog U 4023 and Unimog U 4000 were sent to the frontline.

27 heroes on a mission for their country.

Wood and wood products are the most important export goods of Latvia. No surprise really, in view of the fact that around half of the country's surface area is covered by forests. And so it also goes without saying that the wood industry is traditionally among the country's strongest economic branches and also makes up for a large percentage of the country's workplaces. Large-scale forest fires therefore don't just endanger nature but also the country's industrial existence. Rather worryingly, just like in the rest of Europe, the summer of 2019 was hotter and drier in Latvia than in the previous year, itself also a bad year for fires.

But Latvia has suitably equipped itself to tackle such blazes: a total of 27 Unimog vehicles – 16 Unimog U 4000 extreme off-roaders and 11 Unimog U 4023 models – now form part of the fleet of Riga's Agriculture and Forestry Ministry. They form the backbone of the nation's forest firefighting capabilities.

When the alarm goes, initially just a single Unimog with a crew of three sets out to the scene. The team is then assisted by the locally responsible forester. And more often than not, this is normally sufficient: in 70 % of all cases, the firefighters can put out the fire entirely using just a single vehicle. But if fires are bigger, additional Unimog vehicles are called in as reinforcement. In order to obtain a better picture of the scene when fighting the fires, the teams regularly use drones. They fly over the area in question and use thermal imaging cameras to quickly determine the location of any specific hotspots.

We can only use light-weight vehicles. The 10-tonne category is ideal for our needs.

Zigmunds Jaunkikis, Deputy Chief, State Forestry Service

The Unimog feels particularly at home in terrain covered by woodland: larger fire tenders often have no chance of getting around such dense forests. The light-footed, agile Unimog is a great advantage here. And if ever the teams run out of water, the Unimog can fill its tanks back up at the nearest river or lake before returning to frontline.

Interview with Zigmunds Jaunkikis.

As Deputy Chief of the State Forestry Service, Zigmunds Jaunkikis knows the challenges faced during operations in such densely wooded areas. In our interview, he explains why the Unimog extreme off-roader is the perfect firefighting tool and why he can't imagine a future without the Unimog.


How was the summer of 2019? 
Summer 2019 was much drier than the same time in 2018. By the 6th of September 2019, a total of 999 forest fires had already been registered in Latvia. Throughout all of 2018, there were just 927 fires. That said, the total area which burned in 2019 was smaller than in the previous year.  


In Latvia, you have a range of very special vehicles for fighting forest fires. What led to you selecting this specification for the vehicles? 
We place great value on having the best-possible off-roading capabilities on our vehicles, because we operate in a number of boggy and sandy areas. There aren't tracks through the entire forest and so we very often have to drive across some pretty rough terrain. Our Unimog trucks are all equipped with wide tyres with a special agricultural profile. Plus, all of the vehicles feature the tyre pressure control system as well as fording capabilities up to 1.20 m. As we can only use light-weight vehicles, the 10-tonne category is ideal for our needs.

What bodies do your Unimog trucks have?
Latvian bodybuilder Iskada installed a 2500-litre water tank and a pump from Ziegler for high-pressure and low-pressure applications. Then we have two hose reels, a chainsaw, shovels and fire-beaters, vacuum hoses and a vacuum sieve basket. The body has a very flat design in order to keep the vehicle's centre of gravity low.


How are you organised in order to be in a position to react swiftly when the alarm goes?
Latvia has ten forestry administration departments. Each one has either one or two fire stations. Then in the Riga greater area, there are an additional five depots which take the total up to 26 stations. This allows us to keep journey times to the scene of a fire as short as possible – 30 kilometres being the maximum distance that would need to be covered. The foresters are also integrated in the alarm chain. If a fire can't be extinguished, neighbouring fire stations will also be called in to assist.  


To which authority do Latvia's forests belong?
Latvia has 33,500 km² of forests, which is around 54 % of the country's entire surface area. The vast majority of the forests are state-owned. Then there's the city of Riga which also owns their own section of forests, plus there are of course also some woodland areas which are privately owned.

How do you see the future with the Unimog?
We anticipate the number of forest fires will continue to grow over the coming years. Currently, we have 27 Unimog trucks in operation. We'd soon like to bring that number up to 35. This would ensure that we can react more quickly and even get the biggest of fires reliably under control.


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