Peat fires flare, fill Moscow with smoke

Russian capital's pollution cuts services

in villages, residents fight the flames

September 06, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In the countryside, people fought back with bucket brigades. From above, a huge cargo plane dumped tons of water. And still, the smoke came, pouring into Moscow's subway system, grounding airlines and choking people.

With no major rains in the past several weeks, scores of peat fires that have mainly smoldered deep underground near Moscow all summer flared up again last week - smothering a capital already heavily polluted by the exhaust of millions of autos and trucks.

In the countryside, the sight of fire crawling across the fields is an eerie one.

"There is always smoke coming from the ground and even when a small wind blows the fire comes up, and it is open fire, not smoke," says Yelena Makarenkov, 40, who owns a modest summer house, called a dacha, in the village of Subotino, about 40 miles northwest of Moscow.

"It is crawling into the forest igniting the dry grass on the ground and the roots of the trees."

Firefighters briefly battled the Subotino blaze after it broke out last week. But there was a water shortage in the village, as there is in most villages here.

And the firefighters haven't been seen since, residents say.

To save their homes, residents organized bucket brigades to carry what water they could dredge out of their nearly exhausted wells. Sometimes, they were forced to use buckets of sand.

Makarenkov said she and her family have been fighting the fire, on and off, for the past week, walking across the scorching earth amid swirling smoke and blazing embers.

The ground was so hot, Makarenkov says, the plastic soles on her husband's shoes started to melt.

In Moscow, the smoke resembled a brown shroud pulled across the skyline. Ashes occasionally drizzled along the streets, where visibility was so poor some drivers switched on their lights.

Pedestrians hacked and coughed, and some held wet handkerchiefs over their mouths.

Moscow's Domodedovo Airport shut its runways to incoming flights for a period yesterday morning, the Interfax news agency reported, while the other airports experienced long delays. Pollution in Moscow rose to four times normal levels by noon yesterday.

Fires and the smoke contribute to pollution here every summer, but some Muscovites say this smoke cloud is worse than the legendary pall of 1972, when Soviet authorities pressed hundreds of citizens into service to battle the blazes.

The marshy Moscow region is ringed by peat bogs that, during the Soviet period, were drained so the peat could be harvested as fuel. Dry peat is highly combustible. And when a fire starts on the surface of a dry bog, it can burrow deep into the ground and smolder for weeks.

An Ilyushin-76 cargo plane, the largest in the world, dumped tons of water at a time yesterday on blazes in the Shatura district southeast of Moscow, one of the worst-affected regions. Seven firefighting trains, used to battle blazes alongside the tracks, were called in to help.

The best hope for controlling the blazes is rain. But forecasters say little is likely before Tuesday, at the earliest.

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