Deadly battle to defend Russian nuclear sites from wildfires
Russia fought a deadly battle Tuesday to prevent wildfires from engulfing key nuclear sites as alarm mounted over the impact on health of a toxic smoke cloud shrouded over Moscow.
One soldier was killed seeking to put out a fire dangerously close to Russia's main nuclear research centre, while workers were also mobilised to fight blazes near a nuclear reprocessing plant.
After almost two weeks of fires that have claimed over 50 lives and even part destroyed a military storage site, the authorities said they were making progress in fighting fires covering tens of thousands of hectares.
"A positive dynamic in liquidating the wildfires continues to be observed," said the head of the emergencies ministry's crisis unit, Vladimir Stepanov.
"The numbers (of emergency workers) have been increased in those regions where there is a difficult situation with the fires," he added.
He claimed that the emergency services were starting to make inroads into the fires, saying that the area of peat fires in the Moscow region had been reduced by 30 hectares over the past day.
The acrid smog from wildfires 100 kilometres out in the countryside that descended over Moscow lightened Tuesday morning but forecasters warned it could return and the air quality was still dangerously poor.
The Moscow authorities acknowledged for the first time on Monday that the daily mortality rate in Moscow had doubled and morgues were overflowing with bodies but the federal government has yet to confirm that statistics.
"We are seeing a certain decrease in pollution but the problem remains," said spokesman for state air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring, Alexei Popikov.
"The problem remains as long as the fires remain."
Carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 1.6 times higher than acceptable levels early Tuesday, a slight improvement from the day before.
Carbon monoxide levels had been 2.2 times higher than acceptable levels on Monday, 3.1 times worse on Sunday and 6.6 times worse on Saturday.
A member of the Russian armed forces was killed Monday fighting wildfires around the major nuclear research centre in the town of Sarov, a town still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.
"A burning tree fell on the soldier. He died of cranial trauma on the way to the hospital," defence ministry spokesman Vasily Panchenkov told the Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile, officials said fires close to the town of Snezhinsk in the Urals and home to one of Russia's top nuclear research centres had been localised.
The authorities have rejected criticism that they were poorly prepared for the heatwave, which meteorologists have said is the worst in the 1,000 year history of Russia.
"If we had started preparing 10 years ago we would not have been able to do anything," President Dmitry Medvedev said late Monday on a visit to one of the worst affected regions.
"Putting out fires in Luxembourg is presumably easier than in Russia," he remarked.
The heatwave has a huge impact on all areas of Russian society and economists warned Tuesday the record temperatures could have cost the country 15 billion dollars and undercut a modest economic revival.
Worst hit has been the agriculture industry, which has seen 10 million hectares of land destroyed.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who shocked international markets last week by announcing that Russia was banning grain exports, slashed the grain harvest forecast by another 10 million tonnes.
He also warned the Moscow could even extend the export ban, due to expire on December 31.
"If someone is waiting for December 21 or December 31 of this year then it is in vain because we are going to have to look at removing the export ban only according to the results of the harvest of the current year," he said.
© 2010 AFP