Blazes leave Moscow breathless

Smoke: 120 peat bog fires are casting the worst pall over Russia's capital in 30 years.

August 02, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHATURA, Russia - The white clouds rise from the ground, from among the birch and cedar trees. Dry peat crackles underfoot. Firefighters appear and vanish in the ghostly, drifting haze. And a hundred miles to the north, in Moscow, the air is filled with a choking, acrid smoke.

More than 120 smoldering fires in peat bogs here have created the worst pall to hang over Moscow in 30 years - since the bog fires of 1972. These creeping, hard-to-extinguish fires also threaten homes and forests, and a dozen spring up every day.

So quickly are the fires spreading, authorities are considering diverting rivers to flood a swath of the land in hope of extinguishing them.

Alim Karimov, a 38-year-old Moscow street sweeper, sat slumped yesterday in the front seat of his bright-red water truck on the edge of a smoking bog. He gunned the motor to run the pump while a co-worker sprayed hundreds of gallons on the hissing underbrush.

Normally, Karimov would be out early every morning washing grime down Moscow's gutters. But he has been dispatched with more than 550 firefighters and soldiers from around the Moscow region to try to contain the peat fires.

He has spent three days fighting this single blaze in 12-hour shifts. "We planned to be here one week, but no one knows how long we will stay," shrugs Karimov, flecked with soot.

Bog fires are stubborn because flames follow the layers of peat as far as 50 feet into the earth. They may seem extinguished only to flare up in a half-dozen locations - trapping unwary firefighters. During the peat fires of 1972, which lasted for months, bulldozers cutting firebreaks through the brush would vanish into sinkholes created by collapsing ash. Clouds of escaping methane would explode in flames.

Karimov and his team managed yesterday to keep the fire about 100 yards away from an electrical substation in the region's Village No. 12. Beyond was a small cluster of homes, including the dacha, or summer cottage, of Galina Tsegunkova, 38, and her 9-year-old daughter.

"When we got off the train today from Moscow, we were shrouded by this smoke - and the feeling it gave to your nose and throat," said Tsegunkova, standing in front of the village's store as ash drifted from the sky like warm snowflakes. "We never expected anything like this."

The peat bogs catch fire here every year during the dry months. But this winter saw little snow, and it has not rained in the past 34 days. Also, the Moscow region has baked in a record heat wave. The peat, one fire official said, is as dry and flammable as gunpowder.

Authorities say no one has been injured in the blazes, and no structures have burned. But Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that six dachas burned in the village of Tarkhanovsky, about 2 1/2 miles from Shatura. A firefighter said a man driving a jeep-like vehicle was injured when he swerved into a ditch after his spare tire caught fire from a burning field.

Some Moscow health officials advised residents with respiratory problems to leave the city while the smoke hangs in the air. But fire officials insist that they know better and that there is no reason to worry.

"The smoke is absolutely harmless to human health," Gen. Yunis Mustafayev of the region's Emergency Situations Ministry said at the central fire command post here. "Doctors who say it is unhealthy for people with asthma or lung diseases? I deny it."

A small number of fires began burning April 20, but they multiplied in the past two weeks. About 680 acres are burning.

After the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks built their first power station in Shatura, fueling it with peat from the bogs. Peat processing plants were built, and ditches were dug to drain the bogs. As the bogs dried out, the fire risk increased. And the problem only worsened when the plants shut down: They had pumped water as part of their operations.

This summer's heat has contributed to the fire danger. Last month, day and night temperatures never slipped below 70 degrees - an all-time record. And there has been little wind.

Moscow suffers from heavy air pollution, but residents say the last time the air was this bad was during the fires of 1972. At times this week, visibility was reduced to about a mile.

Drenching rains would quench the surface fires. "Russia needs rain," said Andrei Chesalov, a deputy fire chief in one regional department.

"And we need the rain to hit the places where the fire is burning heavily," said Chesalov, in a sweat-stained uniform.

Rain is forecast over the next few days. But even a downpour wouldn't extinguish the fires burning deep in the layers of peat, fire officials say. Those will probably smolder until November - long after the first snows.

Fire officials blamed most of the fires on people who go into the woods picking berries and mushrooms and discard their cigarettes. But some of the recent fires, they say, have been the work of arsonists.

Hundreds of villages of dachas are within the forests in this rolling countryside. Some villagers are helping dig ditches, and children show firefighters how to get to remote hot spots.

Officials don't plan to block access or evacuate residents. "I don't know why Moscow people are so worried about it," Mustafayev said. "I would tell them there is no danger."

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