Fears fires may release Chernobyl radiation
RUSSIA faced an escalating public health scare yesterday after forest fires burned through areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster, raising fears that radioactive material could be released into the atmosphere.
The Federal Forestry Agency said 3,900 hectares in the fallout zone from the 1986 disaster had been affected by the fires.
The Interfax news agency reported that some of the fires had started as long ago as June and had been exacerbated by a heatwave. Russian officials had maintained that fire fighters had combated fires in the fallout zone but a forest official said yesterday that the incidents could not be denied.
"There are maps of the (nuclear) contamination, there are maps of the fires," said an official in the affected Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine and Belarus. "Anyone can put the two together. Why deny this information?"
Senior officials denied that there was a risk to public health. Irina Yegorushkina, of the emergencies ministry, said experts had tested the air after at least six wild fires started in Bryansk, but concluded that there had been no increase in radiation levels.
While the official death toll from the fires is 52, at least 15,000 people may have died as a result of heat and smog, according to experts. Yesterday, firefighting aircraft launched a "massive" attack on blazes near Moscow.
The Emergency Situations Ministry began the operation yesterday evening and deployed two Il-76 transport planes, two Be-200 amphibious aircraft and four helicopters, according to a statement on its website.
Crews also began soaking peat bogs southeast of Moscow that have frequently ignited, filling the city with acrid smoke, the ministry said.
Moscow has been choking on smoke from forest fires and burning bogs since the last week of July, with occasional brief reprieves.
Record heat and the worst drought in half a century have damaged crops and fuelled the flames that have scorched 810,804 hectares this year.
The drought led the government to ban grain exports and threatens to slow Russia's recovery after the economy shrank 7.9pc in 2009.
The smoke cloud is expected to return to Moscow by the weekend and remain there because of an absence of wind.
In an emailed bulletin to citizens yesterday, the Swiss embassy said that the radioactivity in Moscow's air did not exceed normal levels. The European Union said in a statement yesterday that the embassies of its 27 member nations were working normally.
And consular services are continuing at the US embassy with some delays because of staff shortages, a spokesman said.
About 100 dependents and non-essential staff have been given the option to leave Moscow for as long as 30 days. (© Daily Telegraph, London)