As fires rage, Muscovites grapple for answers

It was nearly dark Sunday night when the first droplets of rain began to filter down from the skies and through the blanket of thick smog, caused by forest and peat-bog fires, that has been choking Moscow for days.

The precipitation was only a brief sprinkle. But the sense of relief that even a few drops brought to Russia's gasping capital was palpable.

For days, Muscovites have dreaded venturing outside and avoided it whenever possible. "We just sat inside, with the windows closed," laments Lena, an office cleaner, speaking of her family's ruined weekend.

Schools have been shut down, Moscow's three main airports have limited incoming flights, and in some cases, Red Square tourists are wearing face masks. Even the soccer games of this reporter's children were canceled. Muscovites, like most Russians – accustomed to daily inconveniences great and small and stultifying pollution – grimaced through stinging eyes.

The smoke has seeped into school halls and apartments. Carbon dioxide levels have been 2-1/2 times the permitted maximum in the city; four times in outlying areas.

Fires in Russia normally start in April, and can spread throughout the summer. By June, there were nearly 6,000 fires in 14 regions, by one count.

The emergency situation ministry has thrown an army of 5,000 fire fighters into the battle, with 12-hour shifts. It has deployed planes and trains, and has dumped more than 2,400 tons of water on the fires. It has even used an experimental ionizer to entice rain from the clouds.

"The device is working," says Victor Beltsov, spokesman for the emergency situations ministry, and more rain may follow. But the American-supplied supercomputer used by meteorologists to chart weather patterns since 1995 died in July. "Specialists had to recognize that the American miracle could not stand the Russian burden," the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper ruefully notes.

Some conspiracy-theory enthusiasts here theorize that the more than 200 fires now ringing Moscow are part of some American plot or some apocalyptic disaster. "There is enough material to write a book of horror," crowed another issue of Moskovsky Komsomolets, noting that a popular tabloid pinned the blame on a "test of an American climactic weapon."

But most Russians say that the reasons for the more than 1,000 fires sweeping across Russia now, after one of the hottest, driest summers on record, are to be found closer to home.

Russians are crazy about mushrooms and cranberries, and, city officials charge, they are careless about leaving burning cigarettes behind in forests on their fungus- and berry-finding forays.

Also, several fires were started Sunday when 2,000 history buffs – and many more spectators – recreated the 1812 Battle of Borodino on the original battlefield, with cannon fire.

One actress, Nataliya Fateyeva, blamed "former authorities" for the blazes. "Bolsheviks at some point drained the peat bogs around Moscow, and now they are on fire. Who ever thought such a thing can happen?" she was quoted as asking in the newspaper, Izvestia.

But not all fires begin accidentally. Kommersant Vlast magazine quoted officials from Russia's Far East as saying that they have seen numerous cases of fires started by a "so-called forest mafia," that starts fires, either to cut and sell the timber that remains afterward, or to conceal illegal logging attempts.

Closer to home, there is no shortage of drama, either. A village in the Shatura district east of Moscow burned to the ground, with tales of heroism and cars exploding. "The fire was alive, jumping and laughing, but I thought: 'I won't give up!'" a survivor, grandmother Polina Vasilievna, told one paper.

Still, Komsomolskaya Pravda suspects even more mysterious forces. The newspaper says that during the day, the flames are under control. "By evening," it says, "the fire hides underground, and at 8 p.m. the firemen leave.... But at night the fire comes out of the earth, and in the morning the firemen come and pour out water again...."

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