Pollution level goes up as Russia battles fires

August 8th, 2010 - 1:13 am ICT by IANS  

Moscow, Aug 7 (DPA) Visibility in some parts of Moscow dropped to below 50 metres and air pollution reached more than six times normal levels Saturday, as Russia battled more than 300 new wildfires in a span of 24 hours alone, the Interfax news agency reported.
Most of the new fires were rapidly extinguished, the Civil Defence Ministry told Interfax. Nevertheless, some 840 forest and peat bog fires burned on across Russia.

The smog blanketing Moscow will not disperse until at least Wednesday, meteorologists said.

Doctors in the capital warned of serious health problems, as hundreds of people turned up at hospitals with smog-related ailments. The smoke has even made its way into the shafts of the capital’s renowned metro, which reach up to 85 metres underground.

Simple surgical masks are of no help, health expert Leonid Lazebnik warned. Officials called on Moscow residents to stay indoors or even leave the city altogether.

The US, Britain, France and Germany have cautioned their citizens against travelling to Moscow and other fire-riddled areas unless absolutely necessary. Especially elderly people, children and those with chronic ailments were advised to stay away.

Football matches in the Russian league due to be played at the weekend in the capital were also postponed.

Its airports, meanwhile, were plagued by long delays because of poor visibility, with some flights being diverted to other cities.

Hundreds of thousands of firefighters, soldiers and volunteers continued to fight the country’s devastating blazes, sometimes with primitive resources. Thick smoke repeatedly blocked attempts to douse the flames from the air.

The fires are now to be fought around the clock, Deputy Minister of Civil Defence Alexander Chupriyan declared Saturday. Until now, they had only been contained at night.

Rescue workers from Italy, Poland and Bulgaria have joined the fight, according to Russian officials.

Germany Saturday also agreed to meet a Russian aid request by flying 100,000 breathing masks to Moscow, along with firefighting equipment such as hoses, pumps and electricity generators, government sources said.

Russia has been in the grip of record heat, with temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius, and a drought unmatched in a century.

The forest and peat bog fires have killed more than 50 people, according to government figures. But Russian aid agencies believe that the death toll is far higher. Hundreds have also been injured, while thousands have been made homeless.

President Dmitry Medvedev has donated $12,000 of his own money towards the rebuilding of homes destroyed in wildfires, his spokeswoman said Saturday.

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