Russia wildfires: Thick, toxic smog chokes Moscow residents

Russia wildfires have now pushed carbon monoxide levels in Moscow to 6.5 times the allowable level and the concentration of other unspecified toxins to 'up to 9 times' acceptable limits, according to Russia's health ministry.

Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters
Russia wildfires: A resident rests as she extinguishes flames after grass was set on fire to form a barrier for new wildfire outbursts, outside the village of Korovino, some 90 km (56 miles) southeast of Moscow, Sunday.

Mila Kharitonova says she feels as though she were trapped in a burning building, amid unbearable heat and smoke, and finds herself constantly struggling to suppress the urge to grab her children and flee.

"There's nowhere to run to, because it's worse on the streets outside," says the mother of three, who lives in a third-floor flat in central Moscow.

For almost two weeks, a thick, toxic blanket of smoke from blazing suburban peat bogs has settled over the capital. The acrid, choking haze, combined with drought and more than a month of the most relentless heatwave on record, has left many Muscovites almost literally choking with concern.

Since late June, Russia has been hammered by daily temperatures that have been 10 to 15 degrees C above the July average of 23 degrees C, while the cooling trend that usually begins in August so far shows no signs of materializing.

The heat and extraordinarily dry conditions have spawned the worst and most extensive wildfires in memory, spreading across the steppes and forests of central Russia and generating a thousand-mile wide plume of smoke that can be clearly seen in satellite photos.

As of Sunday, the Ministry of Emergency Services said there were 554 wildfires raging around European Russia, which have killed 52 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Some of the worst blazes are almost literally on Moscow's doorstep, including about 30 huge peat bog fires that firefighters have been unable to control.

Putin bans wheat exports

With up to a third of Russia's wheat crop destroyed, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week ordered a complete ban on Russian wheat exports for the coming year.

The main political result of the crisis has been to confirm Mr. Putin in the minds of many as the country's most energetic and effective leader, but some argue the longer the emergency goes on the more likely it seems that he may reap the blame for the Kremlin's slow and halting handling of the fires.

"The heat is a climate issue that we can do nothing about," says Irina Glushkova, a researcher with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "But fires are another matter. All the state agencies that were connected with forest protection, fire prevention, and firefighting have been downsized and stripped of funding in recent years. That's a political issue that should be discussed."

In Moscow, it's all about the smog

For most Muscovites the central issue of the moment is the cloud of smog that swirls around their bedroom windows, penetrates into their homes, and even seeps into the deepest metro stations.

"Who knows what the long-term health effects of breathing this stuff are?" says Ms. Kharitonova, who leaves her flat only to buy groceries, and wears a surgical face mask when she does.

She keeps all windows closed, and the interior of her apartment is festooned with wet blankets and towels – on the advice of Russia's health ministry – and
she burns candles that someone told her help to destroy toxins in the air.

Is that the sun or the moon?

On Saturday, the worst day yet, Kharitonova says the smoke was so heavy that she could barely see across the street from her kitchen window. Downtown Moscow was shrouded in a swirling cream-colored haze that virtually blotted out landmarks like the Kremlin and the massive Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Even the sun, burning in a cloudless sky, might have been mistaken at times for a full moon.

Several embassies, including those of Poland, Canada, and Austria, have evacuated nonessential personnel, and almost every major government has issued travel advisories warning citizens this may not be a good time to visit Russia.

According to the Health Ministry, Saturday's pollution was "the worst of 2010," with carbon monoxide levels at 6.5 times the maximum allowable level and the concentration of other unspecified toxins at "up to 9 times" acceptable limits.

But Russian authorities have been less forthcoming on the public health impact of the crisis, leaving journalists to resort to mostly anecdotal reports.

The independent Interfax agency quoted an anonymous official source as saying that Moscow's mortality rate for July rose by 29.7 percent as a consequence of the "catastrophic heat and smog."

The rumor mill is ablaze with talk of carcinogens from burning toxic waste dumps and radioactive smoke from fires raging near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear station, which suffered a nuclear meltdown in 1986.

Russian authorities say they have prevented a potential disaster in the nuclear weapons-building center of Sarov, about 220 miles east of Moscow, where emergency workers have dug a canal to block a forest fire that was advancing upon a military storage facility.

Forecasts suggest that the heat and smoke are likely to persist at least until the middle of the coming week. How long cleanup and recovery will take is anyone's guess.

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