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August 02, 2010

Russia Wildfires Rage Amid Record Heat

by James Brooke

Week-long fire epidemic has caused at least 40 deaths, 2,000 burned homes and about 100,000 evacuations

The hottest summer on record has dried out Russia, causing drought and wildfires, without any end in sight.

After a month of baking hot temperatures, wildfires are exploding across Russia at the rate of 300 a day, emergency officials said Tuesday.

While officials say they doused most fires within hours, the week-long fire epidemic is taking its toll: at least 40 dead, 2,000 homes burned, and about 100,000 people evacuated.  Fifty peat bog fires now ring Moscow, infiltrating a gray haze through the onion domes of the Kremlin and the glass towers of the financial district.

Things could get worse

Now, weather forecasters say it could get worse.

After enduring the hottest July since record keeping started in the czarist era, Moscow residents face a week of temperatures forecast to hit 38 C daily through Saturday.

Zinaida Esipova is a retiree from Lipetskaya Oblast.

She says she placed icons around the ashes of her village and then told a reporter from Russia's First Channel how scared she was when flames came from all sides, burning 11 houses

Although all the villagers survived, shifting winds are turning firefighting battles into wars.

Protecting Sarov

On Tuesday, Sergei Kiriyenko, Russia's nuclear chief, flew to the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov, about 500 kilometers east of Moscow.  On Monday, flames spread to the fences of Sarov, a closed city where Russia's nuclear bombs are developed.  On Tuesday, water tanker planes and hundreds of firefighters fought to protect Sarov, sister city of Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the U.S. nuclear weapons design laboratory.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Medvedev on Tuesday that the situation at Sarov is 'quite complex'.  He told the president that 155,000 emergency personnel are fighting fires around the nation, but several are "out of control."

Last Thursday, flames roared through a Navy supply base 100 kilometers east of Moscow.  In response, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered soldiers to dig trenches and fell trees to create fire breaks around military bases and nuclear plants.

Shirtsleeves tour

With state television crews in tow, the prime minister has toured burned out villages and lectured regional officials.  After meeting villagers grieving in front of their destroyed houses, Mr. Putin promised on camera that the government would spend $200 million to rebuild all damaged houses before Russia's notorious winter descends in November.

Mr. Putin's highly visible, shirtsleeves tour is seen by many analysts as yet another indication that he plans to run for a third term as president in elections 18 months from now.  By contrast, President Medvedev, his protégé, has stayed deskbound in the Kremlin, essentially lecturing Russians not to play with matches.

In a nationwide address Monday night, Russia's president said: "With the cities sweltering in this stifling heat, of course, we want to get out and escape into nature.  But here, we have to be extremely attentive, extremely careful, because even a single match left burning could spark an irreparable tragedy."

State of emergency

The president also declared a state of emergency in seven regions.  Parks and forest will be closed to picnickers in an effort to minimize wildfires from runaway campfires and barbecues.

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made a nationwide appeal for the faithful -in his words- "to unite in one prayer to God that he send rains to our scorched soil."

But even if rains were to come this weekend, it would be too late for much of the nation's grain crop.

Agricultural fears

On Tuesday, Alexander Belyayev, Russia's deputy agriculture minister, estimated that drought will cut Russia's grain harvest by about 25 percent compared to last year.  On Monday, the Russian Grain Union, a farm group, estimated that grain exports could drop by half this year.

Russia is the world's third largest wheat exporter and fears about the crop shortfall have sent world wheat prices up almost 50 percent since early June.