Peat smog hits Moscow Region

Peat smog hits Moscow Region

08 August 2011

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Russia — The peat fires are back – and by the end of the week their smoke could be drifting back towards Moscow.

Meteorologists warn that easterly winds are coming, while residents of Moscow Region are once again choking on burning peat bogs.

While the authorities claim that everything is under control in the area around the eastern edge of the region, residents say they are already feeling the effects of the blaze.

Leonid Starkov, senior meteorologist at the Fobos forecasting center, said the situation was “very alarming” for the capital.

Cries for help

Residents of Orekhovo-Zuevo and Pavlovsky Posad districts were the first to start choking in Moscow Region this year.

“We are sorting numerous requests for aid at the moment,” Anastasiya Severina, coordinator of Karta Pomoshchi, a nationwide web service linking demands for help and fire fighting volunteer groups. The service was launched last year to consolidate efforts to help in the fire zone while officials struggled to act decisively.

And the same is happening this year, according to pleas for help submitted to the service.

“The flames are spreading around the perimeter of the town of Elektrogorsk,” one of many requests read. “I have seen neither fire engines, nor planes and have no idea what officials are thinking about. I’ve got a two-month-old son here.”

‘Penguin’ on fire

The local dacha-owners union, “Penguin” reported that many houses have already burned down.

“Everything is covered with smoke here, there are some helicopters trying to fight the blaze and we’ll be given some plots ourselves to tackle the fire,” said volunteer coordinator Mikhail Shlyapnikov. He added that a group of 15 volunteers was on its way from Moscow to help tackle the emergency.

Moscow under threat

An easterly wind expected on Thursday is likely to bring the smog from the affected region, despite the prospect of some rain.

Occasional showers expected in the next few days might put out some of the wildfires in the region, but “can’t do anything about burning peat bogs,” Starkov said.

“It the fires remain the same by then, the smoke might well spread towards Moscow,” he concluded.

Last year the city was shrouded in smog for about 10 days, prompting health concerns and claims that the death rate in the capital doubled during the crisis.

Houses in peril?

The situation near Elektrogorsk, a town of 21,100 residents in the Pavlovsky Posad district, seems to be one of the most serious. Some local residents have been told it will be impossible to save their houses, according to activists.

Despite this, official statements from the Emergencies Ministry insist there is little to worry about.

“The fire fighting group was enlarged to 628 people and 96 units of machinery since yesterday, but I can confirm that there is no danger to settlements or dachas in the area,” said Yulia Gavrikova, spokeswoman for the Moscow Region branch of the Emergencies Ministry.

“Five new fires – one peat bog and four forest – were put out but one peat bog fire is still raging in the Pavlovsky-Posad area,” she told the Moscow News over the phone.

Vladimir Dmitryev, press officer for the Federal Forest service said GPS-based systems were being used to pin down the location of hot-spots and battle the blazes.

Conflicting views

Activists, however, fear that the authorities are not telling the whole story and accuse officials of massaging the figures.

“There are currently two fires in the Moscow Region – one of which hasn’t been reported on the Ministry’s official website,” Alexei Yaroshenko, forest program director at Greenpeace said.

And the affected area is much bigger than reported, he added.

Meanwhile last year’s volunteer firefighters are currently fighting the blaze in the Tver region – another troublesome spot ignored by the Ministry, he said.

“A small group will come to the Moscow region today to check the situation there,” he said adding that one of the fires was first reported over a year ago. The second is also likely to have been going since last year, he added.

For all his criticisms, Yaroshenko praised the efforts of the Federal Forest service, saying it was reacting quickly and effectively when fire reached its land – but adding that it was the Emergencies Ministry which was responsible for most of the fire zone.

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