Let Me Not Stand Next To Your Fire

Julia Ioffe at The New Yorker:

The smoke is gone for now, but the peat bogs are still boiling, and the forests are burning. As of Thursday morning, 484,000 acres of forest were burning, 17,000 more than the day before. Fifty people have reportedly died in the fires—this on top of the unknown number of deaths from temperatures higher than anything ever recorded in Western Russia. More than two thousand homes have been destroyed. All around the capital, twelve thousand peat bogs are slowly simmering, sending toxic clouds of carbon-rich smoke into the city. Alexander Chuchalin, the chief pulmonologist of Russia (who knew they had such a thing?), said that the air in the capital has gotten so bad that it was like all Muscovites had become chain smokers overnight. Current levels of carbon monoxide, he said, “damage an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body, which equals to the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours,” he told a news conference.

Dr. Chuchalin made this statement last Wednesday, a day that smelled vaguely of barbecue. This week, just after midnight Tuesday, the mesquite smell returned. By 4 A.M., Moscow was enveloped in a heavy fog, one that didn’t lift. By Wednesday afternoon, visibility had dropped to a hundred yards. The smoke had penetrated the city’s deepest Metro stations, which had been used as bomb shelters during the Second World War. A fine grit coated parked cars. Chests rasped, eyes watered. But Muscovites who ventured out into the thick pewter cloud soldiered on without masks. “No, we are Russians,” a nurse told my friend Miriam Elder, reporting for GlobalPost. “We believe in luck.”

Elder travelled to one of the worst-hit areas, eighty-some miles southeast of Moscow, near Ryazan. “With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle.” (Elder could have used help herself; she sank into a boiling sandpit, getting second-degree burns on the soles of her feet.)

This scene is playing out all over the Russian countryside, which, as always, is suffering far more than Moscow. Villagers received no fire warnings. When the fires started approaching, some had trouble reaching the local authorities. Others begged for buses to help evacuate their villages, were told to fend for themselves. Fire trucks didn’t come, either, and then their homes, made of wood, were gone in minutes. The forestry minister, meanwhile, is on his August vacation, and has no plans to cut it short.

The government’s response has been a disaster, and the people are blaming their local officials—but not the very top. When a mob of irate women descended on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they weren’t mad at him; they were demanding that he, as one woman put it, “string [local officials] up by the balls.”

More Ioffe at Foreign Policy

Ann-Dorit Boy at Spiegel Online:

The wind had been merciful during the night. By Thursday morning the thick, acrid smoke over the center of the Russian capital had cleared — just a little. “Look, you can even see the sky!” said newspaper vendor Natasha Ivanova. The previous day at this time she couldn’t see further than 100 meters beyond her little kiosk in front of the Paveletskaya metro station.

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The city’s high rises remained cloaked in a wall of smog, and hot gusts of wind blew down the streets. Knowing that at any moment another cloud of burning smoke could descend upon Moscow, Natasha carried one of the protective face masks that can be purchased at local supermarkets in her bag. The fires around the city and across large parts of Russia are still not under control.On Wednesday, smoke from the massive Russian forest fire catastrophe that has engulfed the country reached the capital. The worst smog the city has seen in decades engulfed the city of 10 million like a white smoke screen. The smog even seeped into the metro stations deep underground. The mass-circulation newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda described apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of horror movies.

Wet Cloths and Camomile Tea

People pushed masks and wet cloths against their mouths and noses, even though this did little to protect them from the poisonous air. Doctors have warned that the air pollution is 10 times worse than normal. And the concentration of toxic carbon monoxide has reached levels that can be dangerous even to healthy people.

The health authorities have urged Muscovites to stay at home and wash out burning eyes with camomile tea. Russia’s chief medical officer, Gennadi Onishenko, advised employers to let their employees stay away from work wherever possible.

But such advice isn’t very helpful to newspaper vendor Natasha. The woman, in her mid-30s, has to set up her stall even in the midst of thick smog. If she doesn’t work, she won’t be able to pay her rent. She has read warnings that within a few hours one can inhale as many toxins as those contained in 40 cigarettes. “That is terrible,” the redheaded woman sighed. “But there is no getting away from it.”

For almost 10 days fires have been burning in forests across much of Russia and, particularly in the region surrounding Mosow, in dried-out peat bogs. The fires have been increasingly impossible to contain.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up. Fisher with his own blog post:

Because much of Western Russia has been stricken with record temperatures and weeks of drought, it is exceedingly difficult for officials to predict where the next wildfire will begin or how quickly it will spread. At least 40 people have died so far trying to escape the fires. The casualties almost included these four young Russian men, who videotaped their flight out of a smoldering wildfire in the Nizhny Novgorod oblast:


The men, who at one point remark that the road itself is on fire, quickly turn from awe-struck to panicked once they realize that they are stuck. They briefly debate fleeing on foot but agree that leaving the car would block the road and doom the people in the cars behind them. They return the car to the road and finally emerge from the worst of the blaze. One of the men comments, “it was like being in hell.”

The most revealing moment of the video comes near the end when, after driving through for several minutes in near-black darkness, the car emerges from the smoke to show a blue, daytime sky. Many of the fires are burning peat bogs, producing a dark, heavy smoke that is extremely difficult to navigate. As the fires spread to Russia’s many bogs, evacuations will continue to be as chaotic, frightening, and dangerous as the one in the video above.

Paul Goble at Eurasian Review:

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In an essay posted online today, Sergey Robaten, Vadim Tatur, and Maksim Kalashnikov argue that the fires and the inability of the powers that be to contain and extinguish them is the result not of the drought and hot weather but “the inaction of bureaucrats” and the earlier destruction of the all-Russia fire service (forum-msk.org/material/economic/3803305.html).

After Putin eliminated the national fire service and transferred responsibility for fighting fires to those renting state property and the subjects of the federation, the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences warned that “the first dry year after the liquidation of the system of forest protection would become a catastrophe” for Russia.

The assumption of those responsible for what has happened, the three Moscow commentators say, was that owners or renters would spend the money necessary to prevent forest fires, an assumption that might be true in other countries like Sweden but that did not reflect Russian realities where companies were seeking to make quick profits.

Moreover, the three report, the Keldysh Institute scholars three years ago concluded that “if Russia raised the effectiveness of its system of combating forest fires to the level of the Canadian, then the area of fires and the losses of them could be reduced more than ten times.” But they ask, then what would the Emergency Situations Ministry have to do?

The Russian system of protecting forests from fires, which existed until January 1, 2007, was inherited from Soviet times. And its operations, the three commentators say, were based on the longstanding principle that “the earlier a fire is discovered, the smaller the resources needed to put it out.”
It had a national monitoring system of people on the ground, one that was extremely effective but cost “tens” or even “hundreds” of times less

than the satellite and aerial monitoring the new system required. Not surprisingly, officials interested in gaining access to budget funds preferred the latter, despite the dangers the new system entailed.

Among those, the three point out, is that the new system often fails to detect small fires early on, and then these fires spread, the situation is often out of control. But Moscow’s misplaced confidence in those exploiting the forces and in the power of new technology also had the effect of leading the regime to ignore new fire-fighting technologies.

As a result, they say, at present, “subdivisions of the Emergency Situations Ministry are not prepared for an effective and rapid extinguishing of forest fires because they do not have either adequate means of monitoring or knowledge or the necessary techniques and technology” even these are widely known among Russian as well as foreign specialists.

Top Lap at Live Journal

Alexandra Odynova at The Moscow Times:

Taking a new tact in fighting wildfires, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday granted a fire bell to a blogger who published a profanity-laden post accusing the government of incompetence.

In a rare deviation from his tough public image, Putin said he agreed with the blogger’s harsh criticism, which included a dig at President Dmitry Medvedev by asking, “Why the [expletive] do we need an innovation center in Skolkovo if we don’t have common firefighting vehicles?”

Medvedev hopes to create a Russian version of Silicon Valley at Skolkovo, outside Moscow.

Unlike Medvedev, Putin is not known for being technologically savvy, and his first known reply to a blogger smacks of populism ahead of the 2012 presidential election, an analyst said.

The LiveJournal blogger, known only by the nickname top_lap, complained in a post Sunday about lax fire safety measures in an unidentified village 153 kilometers away from Moscow in the Kalyazin district of the Tver region, where he said his dacha is located.

“With the [expletive] communists, who are scolded by everyone, there were three fire ponds in the village, a bell that tolled when a fire began, and — guess what — a firetruck,” the blogger wrote in the 600-word post titled “Do You Know Why We’re on Fire?”

He said everything changed when “the democrats” came to power, with authorities replacing the bell with a village telephone and filling the ponds with sand.

“Give me back my [expletive] fire bell, you [expletive], and take away your goddamn telephone,” the blogger wrote.

The blogger also suggested that his tax money be directed toward a firetruck.

A copy of the post, which has ignited a flurry of attention in the Russian blogosphere, was forwarded to Putin by Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio.

The post, Venediktov wrote to Putin, is a typical and “not overly sharp” example of the public criticism that the government is facing as it struggles to extinguish the wildfires.

“I knew I was taking a risk,” Venediktov told The Moscow Times. “I purposely sent the text of the post to Putin, not Medvedev, because I know for sure that Medvedev really reads blogs on the Internet himself, while Putin would never see that post himself.”

Vyacheslav Solovyov at Voice Of Russia:

According to data from American surveillance satellites, the smoke from Russia’s wildfires has climbed to 12 kilometres in places and formed a wide band stretching from the Urals to the border with Belarus.

More than 160 thousand Russian firefighters, volunteers and soldiers continue to battle raging wildfires, which have already destroyed thousands of houses and claimed over 50 lives. There are nearly 600 blazes in 17 regions, seven of which have been declared federal disaster areas.

Moscow stays smothered with wildfire smog, which is not expected to go away before Tuesday. The atmospheric carbon monoxide is at 6 and a half times the maximum physiologically acceptable level.

As Russia is battling wildfires, Pakistan and China are dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic floods, and countries in Latin America, shuddering in the wake of sharp wintry snaps with snow and frost.

A climatic imbalance in evidence pushes the issue of global climatic security to the fore, to be addressed equally seriously with the food and the energy security.

The root causes of the imbalance are a matter of scientific dispute. While some continue to blame unusually strong outbursts of energy on the Sun, others, in an overwhelming majority camp, speak about global warming caused by a man-made build-up of greenhouse gases.

Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

For all those curious to see just what an entire country on fire looks like, the University of Maryland Fire Information for Resource Management Services provides an interactive map of all currently raging fires in Russia. With Moscow temperatures projected to hit 40 Celsius today (and stay there for at least the next few days), and visibility in the Russian capital down to double digits, now that the surrounding smoke has been blown in via increasing winds, grain exports and surging food prices may soon be the least of the country’s worries… at least for those unlucky enough to have been a part of the CIS privatization mafia better known nowadays as Russia’s resource tycoon billionaires. All those with Google Earth can download the interactive KML map at the following link. (Google Earth can be downloaded here)

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