Russia reduces wildfires but still on alert

11th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Moscow enjoyed a respite on Wednesday from the smog from wildfires that sparked a health alarm, as authorities said area engulfed by flames had been reduced by half.

But the nation remained on high alert, with the state forest watchdog saying fires covering hundreds of hectares were recorded on August 6 in the Bryansk region -- an area hit by contamination from the Chernobyl disaster.

Anger mounted in the Russian press over the official response to the worst wildfires in the country's history, with questions asked even over the public relations tactics of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The total area of the wildfires in central Russia has halved in the last 24 hours but there were still hundreds of wildfires raging, the emergencies ministry said.

Fires covering an area of 92,700 hectares (more than 350 square miles) were blazing in Russia, almost half of Tuesday's figure of 174,000 hectares, it said in a statement.

But 612 fires were still ablaze, up from 557 reported on Tuesday. Authorities said they began flooding peat bogs outside Moscow. Left over from the Soviet era, peat bogs have over decades dried out and polluted the air.

Concerns remained over the situation in the western Bryansk region where the soil is still heavily contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.

"According to data from August 6, in the Bryansk region alone 28 fires covering an area of 269 hectares were recorded on these radioactive lands," on official from the Roslesozaschita forest watchdog said.

"There are maps of the (nuclear) contamination, there are maps of the fires. Anyone can put the two together. Why deny this information?" said the official, the Interfax news agency reported.

But the watchdog's deputy director Alexei Bobrinsky told AFP: "There is no reason for panic."

The national air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said carbon monoxide levels in Moscow did not exceed acceptable levels after smog over the weekend sparked a major health alert.

"Today and tomorrow we are expecting a stable situation," spokeswoman Elena Lezina told AFP.

"The concentration of hazardous substances has not exceeded the norm since yesterday. However, winds can shift later in the week and bring the smog back."

The smoke from wildfires and burning peat bogs in central Russia, amid the worst heatwave in decades, had for days seeped into apartments, offices, stores and even underground into the Moscow metro.

Muscovites fled the city in droves, while several leading industrial firms have shut down production to spare their workers the high temperatures, sending them on vacation.

Many Russians lay the blame for the disaster on the government but the authorities have rejected criticism that they were poorly prepared.

Moscow authorities acknowledged for the first time on Monday that due to the heatwave the city's daily mortality rate had doubled and morgues were overflowing with bodies.

In typical strongman style, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had the day earlier taken to the air in a water bombing jet to douse fires in one of the worst hit regions but his trip left some unimpressed.

"His PR engineers can think of nothing more other than to yet again sit him behind the controls of an aircraft," leading business daily Vedomosti commented bitterly.

The usually staunchly pro-Kremlin daily Moskovsky Komsomolets said sarcastically that the "Russian authorities are heroically (if you believe the television reports) fighting the forest fires."

"They are fighting the fires, having allowed these fires right from the start to reach a catastrophic magnitude," it said.

© 2010 AFP

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