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Large Fires Nearby Cast Smoky Pall Over Moscow

Russia: A drought and drained peat bogs are providing conditions for blazes. Flawed land management gets the blame for extensive underground burning.

September 06, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHATURA, Russia — After a rainless summer and decades of misguided drainage work in this once-swampy countryside, fires have engulfed countless square miles of desiccated peat bog and cast a suffocating pall over nearby Moscow.

Smoke from the slow-burning peat was so thick Thursday in the capital, 75 miles west of here, that its most revered landmarks were shrouded and drivers had to use headlights at noon.

For hundreds of miles in every direction, the air was so dense with carbon monoxide that health officials advised children and those with respiratory ailments to remain indoors. Planes were diverted Thursday morning from all three major Moscow airports, and flights were hours late once traffic resumed.

From the mansions in elite summer playgrounds outside the capital such as Peredelkino to the meager wooden shacks of poor pensioners in this down-at-the-heels industrial town, Russians were suffering the ecological consequences of unbridled land reclamation launched more than 70 years ago.

Once a restful retreat of lakes and swamps popular with duck hunters, the Shatura region was drained by Soviet authorities, drying the rich, loamy bogs to harvest cheap fuel for an electrical power plant. Fires have regularly ravaged the peat left high and dry by the drainage, but this year has seen less rain and more fires than in the past 30 years.

"Peat burns as deep as 7 meters [23 feet], and the fires can spread underground to emerge somewhere 100 meters [about 330 feet] away, which is why it is so hard to extinguish," said Oleg G. Kolesnikov, deputy head of government for the Shatura district, where 72,000 people live.

Like others overseeing the emergency response that has hundreds of firefighters and soldiers engaged in a Sisyphean task of tamping down the ubiquitous menace, Kolesnikov acknowledged that Russians brought upon themselves this endless summer of smoke by meddling with the water table.

Across Russia, almost 900 fires are burning, including 200 major blazes that cash-strapped communities like this one have struggled to contain. Nearly 4 million acres of forest have been burned this year, one of the hottest and driest on record, the Ministry for Emergency Situations reported earlier this week.

Here in Shatura, the carbon monoxide level is so hazardous that evacuations will have to be ordered if the toxicity limits are exceeded for more than eight hours, said Viktor Solokhin, the regional chief of sanitation and epidemiology. The level was nearly three times the maximum allowable early Thursday and remained critical for five hours.

While midday breezes have alleviated the smoke in central Shatura district most afternoons of this summer-long fire disaster, residents in outlying areas were advised earlier this week to leave before the unpredictable underground creep of incineration could catch them off guard.

Some, though, refuse to leave the woodland retreats they lovingly built over the dried bogs.

"I've lived my life so I don't care what happens to me, but I can't leave my roses," said 79-year-old Anastasia Stepanova, who showed a visitor how the lowered water table and oxygen-robbing smoke have dried her cherished garden. A World War II partisan and survivor of myriad Soviet perils, Stepanova said she fears nothing from a fire that doesn't even flame much.

Others, like neighbor Marina Kalinina, are far more scared--and angry. Relocated 10 years ago from a lakeside garden plot closer to Moscow to make way for an elite housing development, Kalinina rails against corrupt officials she blames for her ill fortune.

"This is what I get for 60 years of slaving! A pension of 1,500 rubles [about $50] a month and land that burns!" she howled, pouring invective on the few firefighters languidly chopping back tree branches between cigarette breaks. "Everyone was asleep when the fires started, and they let them get out of control."

Fifty firefighters have been dispatched here from Moscow to help contain the biggest source of the smoke enveloping the capital, home to 8.5 million people, and other areas of western Russia in a 500-mile stretch from St. Petersburg to Bryansk. But with no rain in sight and winds shifting unpredictably, crews concede that they are overwhelmed.

Retired engineer Vladimir Nikitin, 67, was among those working to keep the fire away from his hand-built cottage. He lamented the decades of drainage that turned the land into tinder.

"Years of stupidity and neglect brought us to this point where I have to defend my dacha with an ax in my hand," he said.

Shatura is a leading contributor to the choking clouds wafting over western Russia, but other blazes are adding to the problem. Wildfires in the grasslands north and west of Moscow have expanded in recent days.

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