Residents flee as acrid smog blankets Moscow

Google News (Link) - AFP - Stuart Williams (August 7, 2010)

Residents began fleeing Moscow Saturday as the worst smog in living memory smothered the city and forced people to don protective masks against pollution over six times higher than safe levels.

The wildfires that have killed 52 people were still spreading in central Russia, with 290 new fires in the last 24 hours as weather forecasters said Russia�s worst heatwave in decades would continue for the next days.

�Unfortunately the number of fires have doubled in the Moscow region in the past 24 hours because of people playing with firecrackers near forests,� said Vladimir Stepanov, a senior official with the emergency situations ministry.

The ministry said 1,000 extra firefighters had been dispatched to tackle fires in peat bogs around 100 kilometres (62 miles) southeast of the capital.

Moscow landmarks including the Kremlin and golden church cupolas disappeared behind a layer of smoke as many Muscovities remaining in the city wore protective masks or simply clutched wet rags to their faces.

Drivers switched on their headlights in broad daylight to see through the acrid haze blanketing the capital while the sun appeared as a hazy disc easily viewed by the naked eye with little discomfort.

The smoke -- easily visible from space in NASA images -- penetrated into homes and offices and was even detected inside the Moscow metro, one of the deepest underground systems in the world.

�The situation is truly extreme. People are in circumstances under which they should not have to live,� leading Russian doctor Ivan Yurlov of the League for the Nation�s Health group told the Kommersant daily.

With health experts warning that the best solution was to leave the city for the weekend, package tours abroad were completely sold out and there was a rush for seats on trains and planes out of the capital, news agencies said.

But travellers faced chaos as flights from Domodedovo, one of Moscow�s main international airports, and Vnukovo airport to the southwest of the capital were disrupted.

Dozens of flights were delayed and around 40 flights cancelled, state aviation committee Rosavitsia said.

�It�s hellish, all the flights are delayed or cancelled. There are thousands of passengers waiting in the heat and smog and the air conditioning isn�t working,� a passenger trying to flee via Domodedovo told AFP by telephone.

The other main international hub, Sheremetyevo in the north of Moscow, was working normally.

State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said that carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were now 6.6 times higher than acceptable levels.

Tiny invisible particles from the fires were also present in concentrations 2.2 times higher than the norm, with specialists warning these could prove highly dangerous if they entered the human system.

In telephone conversations with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, French and Italian counterparts Francois Fillon and Silvio Berlusconi offered help to fight the blazes, Interfax news agency quoted the government�s press service as saying.

France would send a water-bomber while Italy would add more planes to the two already sent.

Germany closed its embassy until further notice and advised citizens against �non-essential� travel to the affected regions while the US State Department asked its nationals to seriously review their travel plans.

Israel advised its diplomats to leave the smoke-filled area, an embassy spokesman said on Moscow Echo radio.

Russia moved a friendly match with Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg, fearing for the health of the players while Spartak Moscow�s home clash with Zenit St Petersburg and the Moscow derby between Dynamo and CSKA were cancelled.

From Saturday firefighters would be tackling blazes in the Moscow region �24 hours out of 24,� said the deputy minister for emergency situations, Aleksandr Chuprian.

Around 7,000 troops were helping fight the fires, the defence ministry said, adding that the situation �remains difficult� in the Kolomna district near Moscow where an anti-missile alert centre is based.

The authorities were also closely watching the situation around the region of Bryansk in western Russia where the soil is still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Weather forecasters warned that with a lack of wind forecast in the capital over the next days, the smog was unlikely to shift until the middle of next week.