Russia races to protect nuclear sites from wildfires

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A noxious smog choked Moscow Friday as Russia moved to protect military and nuclear sites from the relentless spread of wildfires that have have killed 52 people.

The defence ministry 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 disaster.

Moscow commuters, many wearing 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 four times 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 fires are the worst on record in Russia.

"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.

The fires -- which NASA images have shown are visible from space -- have claimed the lives of 52 people, the ministry of health said Friday in an updated toll.

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 soil is 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.

Russia's chief doctor Gennady Onishchenko said 78 children's holiday camps had been closed due to the heatwave and the smoke and 10,000 children taken home to their parents.

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 mortality rate in Moscow meanwhile soared by 50 percent in July compared to the same period last year, said Yevgenia Smirnova, an official from the Moscow registry office.

"The increase started in July, as opposed to June when the figures were largely good. The heatwave has certainly had an influence," she told AFP.

Travel agents reported that all the package holidays abroad for the coming weekend had been snapped up by Muscovites desperate to escape their smog-filled city, the Interfax news agency reported.

The country is also facing a severe drought that has destroyed 10 million hectares of its arable land and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Thursday banned exports from the world's third wheat exporter until the end of the year.

© 2010 AFP

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