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Moscow Inundated by Smoke as Russian Heartland Burns

Wildfire smoke above Moscow, Russia, is seen in this handout satellite image dated Friday, Aug. 5, 2010. The city of Moscow is located in the left third of the image. Source: NASA via Bloomberg
Wildfire smoke above Moscow, Russia, is seen in this handout satellite image dated Friday, Aug. 5, 2010. The city of Moscow is located in the left third of the image. Source: NASA via Bloomberg

Acrid smoke from forest and peat-bog fires east of Moscow shrouded the city in smoke, causing flight delays and raising pollution to “very dangerous” levels.

As many as 140 flights were delayed today as visibility at the capital’s airports was reduced to as little as 350 meters (1,148 feet) this morning. Visibility improved “significantly” in the afternoon and planes “gradually began to return to airports and fly out,” Sergei Izvolsky, a spokesman for the Federal Air Transportation Agency, said by telephone.

Carbon monoxide in Moscow’s air rose to as high as 4.8 times the admissible maximum level before tapering off slightly toward evening, the city’s environmental protection department said on its website. The Health Ministry advised Russians to stay indoors, limit physical activity and wear a mask when venturing outside.

Emergency crews are battling 558 fires covering 179,596 hectares (693 square miles) across Russia, the Emergency Situations Ministry said on its website today. So far this year, fires have scorched 729,761 hectares, an area about three times the size of Luxembourg, according to the ministry. The fires have killed at least 52 people, the Health Ministry said.

Heat Wave

The smoke plume from Russia’s fires spanned about 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) from east to west as of Aug. 4, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “If the smoke were in the United States, it would extend approximately from San Francisco to Chicago,” NASA said on its website yesterday.

Temperatures as high as 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) will continue to plague central Russia and along the Volga River, where the fires are concentrated, at least through Aug. 8, the state Hydrometeorological Center said on its website. “Extreme” fire danger is forecast for many regions, the center said.

The military may press negligence charges against the commander of a paratrooper supply base in the Moscow region that was partially destroyed by fire, Interfax reported today, citing a statement from prosecutors. Strong winds whipped up the fire on July 29, scorching a warehouse, the news service said.

Earlier this week, President Dmitry Medvedev fired senior navy officers for “criminal negligence” after a base near Moscow was gutted by fire.

Drought Emergency

The naval aviation supply base near Kolomna, 100 kilometers southwest of Moscow, burned on July 29, destroying the headquarters, 13 warehouses and 17 parking lots with vehicles, according to the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Agriculture is the hardest hit part of the economy, with the government declaring a state of emergency in 28 crop- producing regions and grain yields down 20 percent this year. Agriculture accounts for about 4 percent of gross domestic product, according to Moscow-based VTB Capital.

The Russian government may delay the start of the school year because of the heat, Interfax reported, citing Gennady Onishchenko, the country’s public health chief.

Onishchenko said school should start as usual on Sept. 1, though authorities may have to consider pushing classes back if the heat wave doesn’t break and smoke from forest fires doesn’t dissipate in the cities, the news service reported.

Russia, the world’s third-biggest grower of wheat, yesterday banned grain exports from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31 as the country’s worst drought in half a century cuts yields.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the ban is “appropriate” to contain domestic prices that gained 19 percent last week. He proposed that Kazakhstan and Belarus, Russia’s partners in a customs union, join the ban.

The Agriculture Ministry cut its grain crop forecast to as low as 70 million metric tons compared with 97.1 million tons last year.

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