Russia admits fires burned on Chernobyl-hit land

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Russia on Wednesday admitted wildfires hit hundreds of hectares of land contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, raising fears that buried radioactive particles could be released into the air.

Smog from the wildfires that shrouded Moscow for days triggering a public health crisis finally dissipated as the authorities claimed the total area on fire in Russia had halved over the last 24 hours.

But concerns mounted over the environment in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine and Belarus, whose soil is still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, as the authorities acknowledged the area had been hit by the fires.

The Roslesozashchita state forest watchdog said in a statement on its website that according to data from August 6, in the Bryansk region alone 28 fires covering an area of 269 hectares (665 acres) were recorded on the radioactive lands.

"The situation is complicated but stable and under control," said the state-run Forestry Management Office for the Bryansk region.

Some officials had previously denied the existence of any fires in the region.

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

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

"Part of contaminative substances will be shifted with the smoke," he said. But "what's burning is on the surface, part of the contaminative substances has gone into bed deposits which are the last to burn."

Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia's health protection agency, also urged against panic.

"There is pollution in the northwest of the Bryansk region but it's background contamination and there was a fire outbreak only in one area," he told the Echo of Moscow radio.

The total area enflamed by wildfires in central Russia had fallen by half since Tuesday, 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.

The spokesman for the governor of the Moscow region said a full plan had been worked out to flood peat bogs in the Moscow region. Left over from the Soviet era, they burned in the fires and helped create the smog.

"The plan will be realised once the forest and peat fires have been managed," Andrei Barkovsky told the Echo of Moscow radio.

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.

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

The price of Russian bread, meanwhile, is rising sharply in Moscow as repercussions from the country's months-long record drought start to have an impact on the cost of food supplies.

© 2010 AFP

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