Russia ups fire protection as smog chokes Moscow
The spread of the worst wildfires on record forced Russia Friday to move missiles, evacuate children from camps and closely monitor radiation levels as Moscow choked under a lung-bursting smog.
The defence ministry overnight ordered the evacuation of missiles from a depot outside Moscow as the authorities warned of the risk of fires reactivating contamination in an area hit by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.
Moscow commuters, many wearing sanitary masks, wheezed as they made their way to work in the worst smog to hit the capital since the fires broke out over one week ago. Experts said the pollution was well above safe levels.
The emergencies ministry said the total area ablaze was down slightly at 179,600 hectares (444,000 acres), but there were still 588 fires across the affected region in European Russia and 248 new fires had appeared over the last 24 hours.
"The situation is stable. The most complicated situation is in the region of Sarov in the Nizhny Novgorod region and in the Moscow region," said the head of the emergencies ministry crisis centre, Vladimir Stepanov.
"This situation has been brought under control and the extinguishing and liquidation of fires is continuing in these regions."
The fires around the city of Sarov are a particular worry for the authorities as the city houses the country's main nuclear research centre. It is still closed to foreigners, as in Soviet times.
The Russian nuclear agency has said that all radioactive and explosive materials have been removed from the centre and the emergencies ministry has assured the public it has the situation under control.
The defence ministry meanwhile ordered weapons, artillery and missiles at a munitions depot at Alabinsk, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) southwest of Moscow to be transferred to a secure site.
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said Friday his forces were also working flat out to prevent the fires spreading to a region in western Russia where the soils are still contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.
"We are painstakingly controlling the situation in the Bryansk region. If a fire appears there, the radioactive particles could fly away with the smoke and a new polluted area could appear," he said.
As well as strategic facilities, the fires were impacting the most diverse areas of life in Russia, from children's holiday camps to animal sanctuaries, reports said.
Rescue workers evacuated 300 children from the "Meteor" holiday camp in the Moscow region that belongs to the administration of the Russian president due to the fire situation and pollution eight times higher than the norm.
The biggest sanctuary for animals in the Moscow region, Bim, was also being evacuated for the same reasons.
Moscow's most famous landmarks like the spires of the Kremlin towers or the onion domes of Orthodox churches were largely invisible from a distance and some flights at its Domodedovo international airport were being diverted.
"It's a serious reason not just for the aged, children and pregnant not to go out into the street but also for people in good health," Yevgenia Semutnikova, head of local pollution watchdog Mosekomonitoring, told daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
The Kommersant daily said the situation was especially critical in the Volga city of Togliatti in southern Russia where a forest within the city limits was on fire.
The fire was being extinguished by water-bombing aircraft and residents were being asked not to venture out onto the street.
The country is also facing a severe drought and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Thursday banned exports from the world's third wheat exporter until the end of the year.
© 2010 AFP