Moscow Smoke Pollution Delays Flights as Fires Spread

Acrid smoke from forest and peat-bog fires east of Moscow shrouded Russia’s capital city in smoke, raising pollution to dangerous levels, delaying flights and canceling sports events.

At least 47 flights were delayed today as visibility at city airports fell to as little as 350 meters (1,148 feet). “Visibility is deteriorating,” Sergei Izvolsky, a spokesman for the Federal Air Transportation Agency, said by telephone. “We are not seeing any improvement.” As many as 140 flights were delayed yesterday.

Carbon monoxide in Moscow’s air rose to more than six times the admissible maximum level today and air pollution is worsening, the city’s environmental protection department said on its website. People should stay indoors, avoid opening windows and use “multilayer gauze masks” when outside, it said.

Emergency crews are battling 577 fires covering 193,516 hectares (747 square miles) across Russia, the Emergency Situations Ministry said on its website. So far this year, fires have scorched 751,907 hectares, an area about three times the size of Luxembourg. The fires have killed at least 52 people, the Health Ministry said.

President Dmitry Medvedev has personally donated 350,000 rubles ($11,740) to help those affected by the fires, the Kremlin said on its website today. The government pledged 35 billion rubles in aid to agricultural producers and 5 billion rubles to rebuild homes destroyed by fires, in addition to 200,000 rubles to each person who loses a property.

High Temperatures

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

People travelling to Moscow and surrounding areas should “carefully consider” their plans because of “hazardous levels of air pollution” and “numerous flight delays,” the U.S. State Department said on its website. The warning is in effect until Sept. 5. Italy’s Foreign Ministry advised people to “postpone any travel plans that aren’t strictly necessary.”

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière ordered 100,000 breathing masks to be sent to Russia and will make hoses, pumps and other equipment available to help firefighting efforts, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement today.

‘Remains Difficult’

“The situation remains difficult,” Vladimir Stepanov, head of the Emergency Situations Ministry’s crisis center in Moscow, said in comments broadcast on state television today.

Moscow’s city center was uncharacteristically empty after people tried to escape the heat and the smoke by leaving town on Friday evening. The “unfavorable ecological situation” caused soccer matches scheduled for the weekend in Moscow and the surrounding region to be canceled, Russia’s Football Premier League said in a statement on its website.

Russia declared emergencies in 28 crop-producing regions because of the ongoing drought. Agriculture, which VTB Capital estimates accounts for about 4 percent of gross domestic product, is the hardest hit part of the economy with grain yields down 20 percent this year.

Russia, the world’s third-biggest grower of wheat, banned grain exports from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31, after the Agriculture Ministry cut its grain crop forecast to as little as 70 million metric tons from 97.1 million tons last year.

“The effect of the grain shortage has not had a visible effect on consumer prices as yet,” Renaissance Capital’s analysts in Moscow, Anton Nikitin and Nikolay Podguzov, said in an e-mailed note yesterday. “It is only a question of time when the change in the consumer price growth reveals these effects.”

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