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Deaths From Fires Skyrocketing in Russia

October 20, 2002|Sarah Karush | Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW — At a training center of the Russian fire service, intricate homemade models depict some of the worst emergencies a firefighter could imagine: an inferno raging at a soccer stadium, a blaze spreading through the aisles of a crowded theater, even a nuclear mushroom cloud hovering ominously over residential high-rises.

But Russia's real fire emergency is far more insidious and goes largely unnoticed. Fifty people a day -- 18,000 a year -- die in fires caused mostly by people smoking while drinking or others who are just plain careless.

That's four times the number of fire deaths in the United States, which has twice the population. The contrast is even more stark with the United Kingdom, which sees 600 fire deaths a year, or one per 100,000 people -- compared to 12.5 per 100,000 in Russia.

Experts say fire fatalities have skyrocketed since the end of the Soviet Union because of lower public vigilance, a disregard for safety standards and a dramatic rise in the number of homeless desperate to keep warm during icy winters. These factors -- and the country's many stove-heated wooden houses in isolated villages -- lead to some of the world's grimmest fire statistics.

"It's mostly people in a drunk state with a cigarette butt," said Didivan Chichinadze, head of the training center and adjacent fire department in southern Moscow.

In summer, the culprit is often the upstairs neighbor, casually enjoying a cigarette on his balcony, Chichinadze said. When he finishes his smoke, he throws the still-lighted butt to the street below. But it falls on another balcony, where the downstairs neighbor keeps extra furniture, paint and other flammable substances, which ignite.

According to the Moscow fire department, 137 of the 226 fire deaths in the capital in the first half of this year were caused by smoking. Alcohol also seems to have played a role: 142 of the victims were drunk.

The homeless, whose numbers have swelled over the last decade, start fires in abandoned buildings and the basements of apartment houses.

"We conduct propaganda fairly actively," said Vladimir Rodin, Moscow's fire chief, frustration creeping into his voice. "But these people don't read the papers or listen to the radio or watch TV."

In the countryside, one spark can ignite an inferno. "The stations are far apart, and those wooden houses are like candles," Chichinadze said.

Russia wasn't always a tinderbox.

A few decades ago, it was a model of fire safety, said Sergei Lupanov, head of the statistics department at the State Fire Service's research center. In 1965, there were one-tenth the fire fatalities of today. In that year, 2,500 people died in all the Soviet Union, including about 1,800 in Russia, he said.

Few appear to be listening.

In apartment buildings, hallways are frequently blocked with junk, and residents install illegal metal doors in front of staircases -- a tactic that might help keep out intruders but could also trap people fleeing a blaze.

Public spaces are not much safer: Theaters and concert halls often keep all but one door locked in an effort to conserve heat and control crowds.

Firefighters say fines for violations are too low to make people obey the law, and residents complain that fire inspectors are more concerned with extorting bribes from small businesses than in preventing fires.

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