Fires continue to rage in Russia; nuclear center at risk

By Benedikt Von Imhoff

MOSCOW – The battle against forest and peat bog fires around Russia continued Sunday, with new fires at one nuclear research site just after firefighters had succeeded in securing another one.

A fire had erupted near the nuclear research center in Snezhinsk, about 50 miles south of Yekaterinburg, the civil defense ministry told the Russian newswire Interfax Sunday. Fire services had so far been able to contain it.

Although fire-fighters had been able to make some progress, more than 250 new fires had broken out over the past 24 hours, the ministry said.

With Russia still suffering from ongoing heat and dry conditions up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly 500,000 acres of land were currently ablaze.

However, the fires in the region around the nuclear research centre in Sarov, some 200 miles east of Moscow, had been extinguished. Like Snezhinsk, the city can normally only be entered with special permits.

In Moscow, a number of diplomats, embassy employees and their families were leaving because of the toxic smog enveloping the capital from the wildfires, Echo Moskwy radio reported Sunday. Among them were staff from the Polish, Austrian and Canadian embassies.

According to civil defense ministry officials, the poisonous carbon monoxide levels in Moscow had risen to more than six times the maximum safety limit. Other contaminants were increased ninefold. Visibility in places was below 55 yards.

The smoke even entered the subway tunnels of Moscow’s famous metro system, up to 280 feet below the ground. Hundreds of people in the capital were being treated for health problems related to the fires.

The smoke also reached Russia’s second-largest city St Petersburg due north-westerly winds.

The fires would now be fought around the clock, Deputy Civil defence Minister Alexander Chupriyan said. Firefighters had earlier been battling the blaze at night.

Meanwhile, international support efforts were shaping up further, with France despatching a fire-fighting plane, special vehicles and about 120 firemen as well as experts to help out. Italy also offered to provide several planes.

From Poland, 155 firefighters were on their way to Russia, while Germany was meeting a Russian request for 100,000 protective masks as well as water hoses, pumps and generators.

The masks and other equipment were currently being packed and were due to be delivered on Monday, the German Interior Ministry told the German Press Agency dpa.

More than 50 people have so far died as a result of the fires, with Russian aid organizations fearing that the death toll may rise significantly. Thousands of people were fleeing their homes.

Countries such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany, have advised their citizens against making any non-essential trips into areas hit by forest and peat bog fires. Russia’s chief medical officer Gennadi Onishtshenko blasted the official warnings as an “unfriendly gesture”.