Russia fought a deadly battle Tuesday to prevent wildfires from engulfing key nuclear sites as alarm mounted over the impact on health of a toxic smoke cloud that has shrouded Moscow.
Two soldiers were killed by blazing trees as they strove to put out a fire dangerously close to Russia’s main nuclear research centre, while workers were also mobilised to fight blazes near a nuclear reprocessing plant.
After almost two weeks of fires that have claimed over 50 lives and even part destroyed a military storage site, the authorities said they were making progress in fighting fires that still covered 174,035 hectares of land
“A positive dynamic in liquidating the wildfires continues to be observed,” said the head of the emergencies ministry’s crisis unit, Vladimir Stepanov.
“The numbers (of emergency workers) have been increased in those regions where there is a difficult situation with the fires,” he added.
The emergencies ministry said that over the last 24 hours, 247 new fires had appeared, more than the 239 had been put out, and 557 fires were still raging across the affected region.
Two members of the Russian armed forces were killed Monday fighting wildfires around Russia’s main nuclear research centre in Sarov, a town in the Nizhny Novgorod region still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.
Rifle battalion commander Vasily Tezetev, 22, “died the death of a hero” Monday while dealing with the fire burning in a nature reserve close to the town, the local emergency centre said, Interfax reported.
Another serviceman, named as Vasily Veshkin, 27, who usually worked at a local prison camp, also died fighting the fire on the same day, it added. Both were killed when they were hit by burning parts of trees that fell to the ground.
Meanwhile, officials said fires burning within 15 kilometres (10 miles) of Snezhinsk in the Urals, home to another of Russia’s top nuclear research centres, had been localised to a five-hectare area and there was no risk for the town.
There was no risk to the nuclear reprocessing plant in the town of Ozersk, also in the Urals, where a state of emergency had been declared a day earlier, emergencies ministry spokeswoman Irina Andrianova told Interfax.
The Russian authorities were stung earlier this month when wildfires spread to a naval logistics centre outside Moscow and caused significant damage. President Dmitry Medvedev fired a string of officers as a result.
The acrid smog from wildfires 100 kilometres (60 miles) out in the countryside that descended over Moscow eased Tuesday but forecasters said the air quality was still dangerously poor.
The Moscow authorities acknowledged for the first time on Monday that the daily mortality rate in Moscow had doubled and morgues were overflowing with bodies but the federal government has yet to confirm those figures.
Mortality for the wider Moscow region has increased by a quarter over the last three weeks, the ITAR-TASS news agency quoted the Moscow region’s top health official Vladimir Semenov as saying.
Carbon monoxide in the Moscow air was 1.4 times higher than acceptable levels Tuesday, the state pollution watchdog said, a slight improvement from the day before. On Saturday they had been an alarming 6.6 times worse.
Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, meeting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the first time since returning from a much-criticised holiday, said calls to the emergency health services in Moscow had grown by one-fifth.
Luzhkov initially refused to return from holiday, with his aides earning ridicule in the tabloid press by denying there was any crisis in the city.
“You of course did the right thing by coming back from holiday. You did it on time,” Putin said pointedly.
The heatwave has had a huge impact on all areas of Russian society and economists warned Tuesday the record temperatures could have cost the country up to 15 billion dollars and undercut a modest economic revival.
Worst hit has been agriculture, which has seen 10 million hectares of land destroyed.