Russians seek shelter as fires rage out of control
Pollution from peat and forest fires raging around Moscow surged to new highs on Saturday as Muscovites continued to flee the choking smog that has shrouded the city.
Officials said carbon monoxide had soared to nearly seven times acceptable levels, the highest since Russia’s worst heatwave in more than a century began, sparking forest fires and drought across a huge swathe of European Russia.
The US State department warned its citizens not to travel to Moscow or central Russia due to the “hazardous levels of pollution”, while the Austrian, Canadian and Polish embassies were evacuating diplomats, according to Ekho Moskvy, the Russian radio station.
City officials on Saturday urged businesses to close to reduce emissions and the number of cars and people on the street.
Moscow’s streets were eerily empty as residents sheltered indoors or fled north to less polluted climes. Dozens of planes were grounded at two of Moscow’s main airports, Domodedevo and Vnukovo, with visibility only 325 metres and 550 metres respectively.
Russian firefighters appeared to losing their battle against the wildfires even as firefighters from Italy, Germany and Bulgaria flew in to help. More fires broke out overnight with the number increasing to 853 across Russia from 831, blazing across a territory of 193,516 hectares.
Russian troops were digging a 8km long canal to keep fires away from a top secret nuclear installation in Sarov, in the Nizhny Novgorod region, 220 miles east of Moscow. The emergency ministry said the situation had “stabilised there” while earlier this week all nuclear materials were transferred from the centre to a safer site.
The city of Nizhny Novgorod was cloaked in smoke on Saturday morning as wind whipped up fires in peat bogs and woods around the city.
Fires were also burning over a large swathe of territory around the chemical city Dzherzinzsk, 400km east of Moscow and known as one of the most polluted cities in Russia.
Criticism is mounting of the authorities handling of the wildfires. At least 52 people have perished, while the death rate in Moscow and other regions was reportedly surging due to the effects of smog.
A new Forest Code rubber-stamped by parliament under Vladimir Putin, then Russian president, in 2006 has come under intense criticism for dismantling a federal safety system, transferring responsibility for safety to regional authorities and tenants such as logging companies, which have performed badly.
Vladimir Chuprov of Moscow’s Greenpeace office said Mr Putin’s reform had left 70,000 forest guards without work, dismantling a monitoring system that would have been of great help in the current situation. “Now no one even knows exactly where the fires are,” he said. “The 120,000 men from the emergency ministry sent to fight the fires don’t even know how to fight forest fires because they are trained only in fighting fires in cities and industrial objects.”
Moscow’s mayor, Yury Luzhkov, left on Friday for vacation. But Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, sought to assuage some of the mounting discontent, transferring 350,000 roubles of his own money to an account set up to provide aid to thousands left homeless from the wildfires.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s emergency minister, warned earlier this week that fires in Bryansk, a thickly forested region about 250 miles south-west of Moscow, could pose a threat of nuclear contamination if they were not contained. The region, especially the south, holds the worst contamination from the Chernobyl disaster more than 20 years ago, according to Vladimir Chuprov of the Greenpeace office in Moscow, with some settlements still evacuated after the disaster.
Mr Shoigu said fires in the region could cause nuclear particles to rise into the air and “create a new pollution zone”. Two fires had already broken out in the region but were quickly contained, he said, but that “risks remained”.
European governments remained unconcerned about the potential for nuclear contamination. The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection said the threat posed “no radiological significance” for Germany and the rest of Europe because the fires were “regionally limited”.
France’s IRSN, the government agency that monitors nuclear and radiation risks, played down the threat to France from airborne contamination.
The agency pointed out that serious forest fires in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in 2002 led to higher levels in the air in France of Caesium 137 – the main radioactive isotope released during the Chernobyl nuclear accident – but that levels remained well below the point that would trigger health concerns.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, earlier this week offered help to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, in fighting the fires.