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Firefighters struggle in vain near Russian nuclear centre

Russian fires not to launch nuclear cloud
Berlin (UPI) Aug 12, 2010 - The Russian wild fires have burned in forests contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident but experts say fears of a dangerous radioactive ash cloud are overblown. The Russian Emergency Ministry Thursday announced that it had managed to put out wildfires in the forests in Bryansk, an area contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, after the fires had raged there Wednesday. A German radiation expert said the local population should observe official radiation warnings carefully but he added that most people have nothing to fear.

"The contamination in the vegetation might have remobilized and spread geographically but, as a result, it also becomes less concentrated," Ulrich Abram, a chemistry professor at Berlin's Free University, told United Press International in a telephone interview Friday. The expert added the contamination with cesium and strontium in the Bryansk area -- once 10 times above German levels -- has roughly halved in the almost 2 1/2 decades since the April 26, 1986, accident at the Chernobyl reactor. "The rest of Europe won't be affected by the fires in the contaminated areas," Abram said.

Meanwhile, Russia's fight against the wildfires seems to be increasingly successful. The Emergency Ministry said Thursday that it had significantly reduced the area covered with fire to 80,000 hectares, down from 196,000 hectares a week ago. Nearly 200,000 people and dozens of planes are taking part in the Russian firefighting operation but it has proven an uphill battle. The fires, aided by a severe drought and the hottest summer since temperature recordings began 130 years ago, have destroyed residential houses, military facilities, and claimed the lives of more than 50 people. In Moscow, which has been affected by thick smog from the fires surrounding the city, the mortality rate has doubled.

The agriculture sector has been hardest hit. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised farmers aid worth $1.15 billion after one-quarter of grain crops in the country have been destroyed by the fires. The fires have been raging for weeks in several provinces of the country, devastating the overall economy by creating short-term losses of an estimated $15 billion. Yet there is hope that all will be over soon. The weather is beginning to cool down, experts said. "The high pressure system over central Russia will start dissipating next Tuesday. For the first time since June 21 we are noticing changes in the atmospheric circulation," Roman Vilfand, the head of the Russian state meteorological center, told Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
by Staff Writers
Tokushevo, Russia (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
Overwhelmed and under-equipped, firefighters struggled in vain against spreading wildfires in the forest of Tokushevo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Russia's top nuclear research centre.

"We have no control (over the fires), now all we can do is get ourselves killed," said firefighter Vasily Filin, who like his colleagues was battling the blazes without the benefit of any protective equipment.

"There is nothing we can do. We need helicopters or planes to put out the fire," he said.

In a nature reserve 500 kilometres (300 miles) from Moscow near the nuclear centre in the town of Sarov, the forest of Tokushevo was burning as Russia struggles with the worst heatwave in its millennium-long history.

The fires near Sarov have raised concerns about the nuclear centre, which is in an area still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times, but no blazes have yet been registered on its territory.

Authorities were not taking any chances however, and on Thursday announced they were boosting firefighting teams to more than 3,400 people to keep the fires from spreading to Sarov.

The help would no doubt be welcomed by those fighting the blazes in Tokushevo.

Firefighters here said it had proved impossible to extinguish the flames from ground level. They had retreated to an area cleared of trees to attempt to contain the blazes.

The firefighters said they had been told that helicopters and planes would not be sent to douse the fires, which were sending a thick cloud of smoke above the trees, because the blazes were not powerful enough and were concentrated in the forest.

With no hope of aerial assistance, the firefighters were digging up the earth around the forest to keep the flames from spreading, with two tractors making ditches to act as buffers against the fires.

"We are working the earth, making ditches so there is no more grass. When the grass is high, the fire spreads quickly, but this way it will advance slowly," said Dmitry Turdakov, an official with the regional firefighting department.

Unable to cope on their own, the local firefighters were being helped by colleagues from neighbouring towns, by forest rangers and especially by numerous volunteers who were arriving throughout the day armed with shovels.

"There are villages right beside (the forest.) This is why I'm coming. I'm afraid that my home will burn. We are all afraid," said one of the volunteers, who declined to give his name.

Like many other local residents, he seemed far more concerned for nearby homes than the possibility the fires might reach the nuclear centre.

Powerless against the flames, the firefighters and volunteers spent most of their time in the cleared-out area waiting for the fires to emerge from the forest, smoking cigarettes and drinking the occasional beer.

As night fell, six fire trucks, two tractors and about 50 people, three-quarters of them volunteers, were on hand and planning to spend the rest of the night on watch.

earlier related report
Russian opposition protest Moscow mayor's heatwave handling
Moscow (AFP) Aug 12, 2010 - Russian police broke up a rally by opposition activists Thursday protesting Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov's handling of the deadly heatwave that has plagued the capital.

Several dozen activists gathered outside Moscow's city hall in the evening for the illegal protest, where they were quickly surrounded by riot police.

Around 20 people were arrested including veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov and Left Front leader Sergey Udaltsov, who was prevented from joining the demonstration.

Luzhkov, who has run Moscow for the past 20 years, has come in for heavy criticism for refusing to return from holiday at the peak of the crisis, when the city was blanketed by toxic smog.

Authorities admitted the mortality rate had doubled in the city during the heatwave, but a full death toll has not been released.

"So many elderly died during this heatwave. The authorities are responsible because they didn't warn anybody, they didn't do anything," 80-year-old protestor Olga Kulikova told AFP.

The riot police also came in for criticism from the protestors, who shouted: "What are you doing here? Go and fight the fires!"

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Russian fires show climate change threat
Washington (UPI) Aug 12, 2010
World wheat supplies have been sharply reduced due to severe drought and wildfires in Russia, a crop report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concludes. The wheat supply will be 6.6 percent smaller than in previous projections and prices, which began a steady increase in June when Russia's heat wave began, will continue to surge, the monthly report said. The ... read more

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