Peat Fires Cover Moscow in a Haze

Peat Fires Cover Moscow in a Haze

22 August 2007

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The city was under a hazy shroud generated by more than 20 peat and forest fires in nearby regions Tuesday, prompting city health officials to advise people with respiratory difficulties to stay at home.

Peat and forest fires in the Vladimir and Ryazan regions reduced visibility and caused havoc on roads there and left Muscovites from Chertanovo to Rizhsky Station making their way through a dark pall on their way to work in the morning.

Harmful airborne substances were at as much as five times their normal level, said Alexei Popikov, from the city environmental agency MosEcoMonitoring. In addition to people with breathing problems, the agency also advised children to stay indoors.

The smoke was to blame for a number of car accidents to the south of the city, police were quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying. Four people were killed in a series of pileups on Kashirskoye Shosse, more than 100 kilometers outside Moscow. Thirty cars were reported to have been involved in crashes along the stretch of road in one half-hour period alone.

The smog and smell were reminiscent of the summer of 2002, when smoke from peat fires reduced visibility in the city at one point to a mere 100 meters. The fires generated so much smoke that traces were detected in Germany and Sweden.

“It is very similar. It is burning and the smell is the same,” said Mikhail Bannikov, a senior researcher at the soil science department at Moscow State University and the author of a study of the 2002 fires.

Six hundred people died from respiratory illnesses connected to the smoke in 2002, said ecologist Alexei Yablokov, Interfax reported. Yablokov said the smoke contained a number of harmful substances.

“After a year or two, there can be unpleasant consequences for your health,” Yablokov said. “It can affect your immune system, blood vessels, lungs and so on,” he said.

Dmitry Kiktev, deputy director of the state weather center, offered advice Tuesday for Muscovites.

“It’s better to be outside the city — the air is cleaner there,” he said, Interfax reported.

MosEcoMonitoring’s Popikov said there was a chance that conditions would remain unchanged Wednesday morning. Kiktev said, however, that a likely change in wind direction would help clear the air.

As for the fires themselves, the situation appears to be less severe this time around.

“The situation is under control,” said Alexei Yermolenko, deputy director of the forestry management department at the Federal Forestry Agency. He said there could be no comparison to the fires of 2002.

Yermolenko said most of the blazes were the result of carelessness and that the start of hunting season might have exacerbated the problem.

There were no fires burning in the Moscow region Tuesday, as they had all been extinguished the day before, said a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry, who did not give his name.

Peat fires are common in the portion of the country west of the Ural Mountains, Bannikov said, because pumping stations that previously regulated groundwater levels under the peat are seriously underfunded and in disrepair.

“Nothing has been done in the last five years to fix the problem,” he said.

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