Russia steps up fire battle near nuclear site

12th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russia on Thursday stepped up efforts to halt wildfires near its main nuclear research site, as President Dmitry Medvedev said one quarter of its crops have been lost in a record heatwave.

The fires have also raised alarm that burning forests could raise up radioactive particles in land still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster but the authorities warned against any panic.

Medvedev also reported success in containing the fires that have killed over 50 people and destroyed entire villages, saying he has given orders to lift the state of emergency in three of seven regions.

But he warned that many farms were on the verge of bankruptcy after one quarter of the country's crops have been lost due to the heat.

"We have a very complicated situation because as a whole in the country around a quarter of the grain crops have been burned," Russian news agencies quoted the Kremlin chief as saying in the southern town of Taganrog.

"Unfortunately many farms are on the verge of bankruptcy on account of the death of the harvest."

Medvedev also said he had lifted the state of emergency in Vladimir, Voronezh and Marii El regions, while the siatuation remained complicated in another four -- Mordovia, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Ryazan regions.

Russia is battling what experts say is the worst heatwave in its millenium-long history which has affected nearly all areas of life and may cost it one percent of gross domestic product, or 15 billion dollars.

Fires also blazed in neighbouring Ukraine, with the emergency services working to put out a two-hectare (five-acre) peat bog fire 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Chernobyl.

Russia sent a special firefighting train and 70 more people to join over 3,400 firefighters battling to douse wildfires close to its top nuclear research centre in Sarov, a town in the Nizhny Novgorod region still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.

While no blazes had been registered on the territory of the nuclear research centre itself, a nearby nature reserve has been on fire for around a week.

The nature reserve is located in nearby region of Mordovia and tree leaves and pine needles on the surface are now burning and smouldering, said Mikhail Turkov, a spokesman for the emergencies ministry's Volga regional branch.

"Two planes and two helicopters are currently circling over Sarov," Turkov told AFP. "Reconnaissance is being constantly conducted from the air."

A firefighting train has been involved in putting out the fires, while a second train was on its way to the scene.

Two soldiers were killed by blazing trees as they strove to put out a fire close to the centre on Monday.

Moscow had choked for days on acrid smog that seeped into apartments, offices, stories and even underground into the Moscow metro.

The city's air was clear of smog on Thursday as the emergencies ministry said the total area of the wildfires in the Moscow region has been reduced by more than a quarter to 126 hectares over the past 24 hours as firefighting teams poured more than 1,000 tonnes of water over burning fires and peat bogs.

The total area of the fires across Russia was reduced by 10,000 hectares and nearly 50,000 people were battling fires in central Russia, the ministry said.

With fires also burning to a lesser extent in Ukraine, officials said the fire 60 kilometres from Chernobyl started on August 9 and will be extinguished on Thursday or Friday.

"The fire presents no danger," Viktoria Ruban, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian emergency situations ministry, told AFP.

Concern remained over the radiation risk from burning forests still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster after officials admitted on Wednesday forest fires hit hundreds of hectares of contaminated land.

Officials said that radiation was normal in the contaminated regions amid concerns wildfires could send a cloud of radioactive particles as far as Moscow.

© 2010 AFP

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