Wildfires in Russia: Radioactivity Concerns Grow as Blazes Continue

With fires continuing to blaze across Russia, many are concerned that radioactivity left over from the Chernobyl disaster could be released into the air. The Kremlin, however, has played down the risk.

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Russia may finally be getting its wildfires under control. On Thursday, the Emergency Situation Ministry announced that several fires in the country had been brought under control. It also said that the number of blazes in the immediate vicinity of Moscow had dropped by over a quarter in the last 24 hours. Indeed, for the first time in days, Moscow on Thursday was no longer shrouded in the thick cloud of smoke which has plagued the city recently.

"I can finally open the balcony door to let my cat warm in the sun," Evgeniya Lavrova, 21-year-old economics student, told the Associated Press. "You walk in a street, feel a light breeze, and want to breathe again."

Many, however, don't trust the good news and worry that, with the capital free of smog, official interest in combating the fires elsewhere will wane. "It seems like Russian politics is based on one single calculus: How does this effect Moscow?" Vladimir Slivyak, co-head of the Moscow-based environmental group Ecodefense, told the Christian Science Monitor. "They're already saying it was just a once-in-a-thousand-year accident and declaring that it's over. But it's not over."

Indeed, many are concerned that fires burning near that Russian border with Ukraine and Belarus could release radioactivity left over from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Parts of the Bryansk region were heavily contaminated by fallout 24 years ago, as were other nearby areas. According to the Russian forest service website, there were 28 forest fires burning in the Bryansk region last weekend.

Cloud of Radioactivity

Earlier this week, Greenpeace Russia published a map purporting to show the extent of the wildfires which, it says, are still spreading throughout southwest Russia in areas that were contaminated by Chernobyl fallout. Radioactivity remains in the forest floor and can become airborne again during brush fires. Indeed, hundreds of firefighters have for years been posted within the 30-mile exclusion zone around the stricken reactor for fear of brush fires releasing another cloud of radioactivity.

"We're not talking about a repeat of the Chernobyl catastrophe, but the danger is not insignificant either," Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia told the Christian Science Monitor. "The worst scenario is the continuing spread of radioactive particles through the area. The danger is first of all to firefighters and local people, but the contamination can spread with smoke to new areas."

Russian officials have played down fears that significant quantities of radioactivity could be released. Other government officials have said that even if there were fires in contaminated areas, the risk of radiation would be minimal. On Thursday, the Emergency Situations Ministry claimed that all wildfires in areas contaminated with radiation have been put out.

Environmentalists, however, point out that officials had earlier denied that such fires existed at all. They have voiced skepticism that the government is being truthful.

Putin the Co-Pilot

The fires in Russia have raged as the country suffers an unprecedented heat wave which has seen temperatures in Moscow repeatedly rise over 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) over the last several weeks. Late last week, some 800 wildfires were reported burning in the country, with many of those in forests and drained peat bogs near Moscow. Officials in the capital reported that the death rate in Moscow had doubled due to both the heat and the thick smog caused by the fires.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for the peat bogs to be reflooded as a way to both put out the current blazes and prevent new ones in the future. Indeed, with public criticism of the government's handling of the emergency rampant, Putin has been doing what he can to appear in control.

Earlier this week, Putin climbed into the cockpit of a Be-200 firefighting aircraft -- which scoops up water from lakes and rivers before dumping them on blazes -- and flew out on a mission as the co-pilot.

Last week, firefighter Yevgeni Subbotin told SPIEGEL that "people have begun buying pumps with their own money to help us fight the fires. Each pump uses 50 liters of fuel a day."

Bloggers have been particularly vocal in their critique, but mainstream news organizations have joined them. Even Pravda, the mouthpiece of Russia's communists, wrote of a "collapse of state leadership."

Weather forecasters are predicting an end to the heat wave next week, amid hopes that cooler weather will help firefighters extinguish the blazes.

cgh -- with wire reports

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