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Russia: Moscow Blanketed In Smoky Haze As Peat Fires Burn Unabated

In the region surrounding Moscow, peat-bog and forest fires are combining with the area's usual heavy pollution to blanket the Russian capital in thick smog. But as Moscow landmarks disappear from view amid the clouds of smoke, local officials continue to assure the public that the situation is normal. Residents, meanwhile, blame authorities for doing nothing to tackle what has become almost an annual problem.

Moscow, 3 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Residents all over Moscow have been waking up to the smell of acrid smoke in recent days.

One elderly Muscovite, passing the afternoon in a central Moscow square, sums up the locals' complaints by saying: "I got up this morning and couldn't breathe at all. It's horrendous. Are we expected to suffer through this so easily? We elderly, especially -- [with our] weak hearts and high blood pressure? Children, too. They can barely get up to go to school. My granddaughter woke up and said, 'I can't get up, my head hurts and I can't breathe.'"

Moscow smog, always bad, has been exacerbated this summer by forest and peat-bog fires that are blazing out of control in regions surrounding the capital.

Such fires burn almost every year. But this has been an especially hot, dry, and windless summer, and that has allowed the thick haze to reach levels not seen since 1972, exactly 30 years ago.

The Emergency Situations Ministry says the fires are consuming almost 490 hectares in Moscow Oblast, pushing up the capital's carbon monoxide levels to up to two times officially "acceptable" levels.

Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov today declared a state of emergency in 22 districts outside the capital city. In Moscow, residents are finding it nearly impossible to cope with the effects of the nearby fires, which include fatigue, headaches, and difficulty breathing.

But officials have been playing down the crisis. Moscow health authorities say they do not even have information about the possible health hazards posed by the heavy smog now blanketing the city.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow Health Committee -- charged with collecting statistics from the city's hospitals -- would only say that the number of calls for ambulances has remained the same as last month's level. She also said there are no statistics to compare from last year. Other officials have made public announcements saying the smog is not causing any serious effects, but have nonetheless advised residents to stay indoors or leave the capital if they can.

A spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry says the fire situation in Moscow Oblast has remained the same over the past month. But they have flared in recent days.

Firefighters southeast of the capital in the Shatura district of the oblast -- the site of some of the most intense fires -- say over 90 hectares are burning in their jurisdiction. Shatura is one of the area's largest producers of peat -- flammable decayed organic matter which is collected and used for fuel.

Sergei Zukin, head of the Shatura firefighting division of the Emergency Situations Ministry, says the situation is nothing out of the ordinary: "Peat burns in every country in which it's found. It's a global problem, and doesn't occur only in the Shatura district. It also burns in Germany."

Zukin says the ministry has 160 technicians and 500 firefighters working in the district and adds that there is nothing to worry about. "The situation is under control. It all depends on the weather. If there aren't any strong winds, then it should move toward conclusion."

But local Shatura journalist Tatyana Orlova says that despite all the efforts, the situation looks grim. The district resembles a war zone, she says, with armored personnel carriers, fire engines, planes, and helicopters.

An entire village in the region burned down on 2 September. Firefighters arrived too late, and, in any case, did not have enough water to be able to do anything. Orlova says: "These areas are difficult to reach. They're bogs that can't easily be approached by car. And the ponds used for firefighting are in very bad condition. The local administration is responsible for the situation, but practically no money has been allocated for that. The authorities have tried to do something, but didn't have time to do it everywhere as one would have liked. So, as they said, there wasn't even a bucket of water to be taken."

Orlova says few measures have been taken to fight what is a recurring situation. Despite the fact that peat-bog fires occur almost every year, even elementary precautions -- such as mowing highly flammable grass next to houses -- are not taken.

Plans are now being made to combat the problem in the future by setting up an organization that would combine local and regional forces to try to prevent fires from spreading out of control. Moscow Oblast Governor Gromov says canals will be built in the future to help keep peat bogs wet and safer from the threat of fire.

But local residents, who complain that the region's infrastructure has deteriorated since the Soviet collapse, say the authorities are too weak-willed to be able to deal with the situation.

One major problem, according to Orlova, is that the Shatura administration -- bowing to pressure from the local hunting and fishing association -- has allowed hunting season to open, making firefighting efforts that much harder. Some hunters on 31 August even fired on people trying to scoop water out of a nearby pond -- because they were allegedly disturbing the local fauna. Gromov's declaration of a state of emergency means that, for now, however, all hunting has been suspended.

Many, including this elderly Moscow resident, are now skeptical that authorities will do anything to tackle the root cause of the problem. "If it's burning everywhere, why aren't they doing anything to deal with it? It's horrible. They only think about their own affairs. They don't think about the people and what we're breathing here."

Firefighters say only rain will put out the fires. But so far, forecasters predict only hotter weather in coming days.