With much of Russia sweltering under a heat wave and forest fires ravaging the Far East, concern is mounting over a possible repeat of a health disaster that engulfed the country last summer.
A year ago, the worst heat wave on record fanned hundreds of fires across the country, filling Moscow with smoke that’s believed to have contributed to tens of thousands of deaths.
Reports this week that smoke from peat fires burning outside Moscow may be penetrating the capital again are fueling fears the authorities’ failure to learn lessons from last year’s catastrophe may add to more casualties.
Blanket Of Smoke
There was little Muscovites could do last year to fight the terrible smog, which raised carbon monoxide levels to more than double the acceptable safety norm.
Muscovite Vassily Vyzhutovich remembers that the smoke was often worst in the morning.
“You couldn’t really see the sun,” he says. “Looking out the window all you could see was smoke and a faint orange outline.”
Some bought medical masks before they quickly sold out, although their protection was minimal. Many put wet sheets over windows.
Others sat in cars with the air conditioning on. Accounts of people fainting, suffering strokes and heart attacks are legion. Some lay in their apartments for hours, even days, until they were found by friends or relatives. And many, many died.
The authorities were slow to react. Few official statistics about casualties emerged until the height of the crisis in mid-August, when the head of Moscow’s health department told reporters that death rates were around 700 a day, double their usual number.
But the Russian health minister immediately disputed that number. Even now, official figures for how many died last year vary wildly between state agencies, from around 60 killed directly in the fires to 55,000 deaths the health ministry now says were above the usual number for the period.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) visits the devastated village of Verkhnaya Vereyain in Nizhny Novgorod Region last year. Many have complained that government cutbacks meant that the response to the blazes in 2010 was inadequate.
That includes people who died from heart attacks and other complications that may have indirectly been caused or quickened by the heat and smoke inhalation.
But experts question that number. Grigory Kuksin of Greenpeace says 55,000 is the minimum number of possible deaths.
“That’s only the number our officials will admit,” he says. “But judging by how such figures are usually minimized, the real number must be significantly higher.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who led the relief effort last year, was shown on television releasing water from a firefighting airplane. But many Russians complained that government cutbacks among firefighters meant there weren’t enough people to tackle the blazes. Volunteer groups communicating by social networking Internet sites sprang up to organize locals.
Kuksin says problems in Russia’s firefighting services, regulatory agencies and forestry codes were only partly responsible for the high number of deaths.
“One reason for the mass deaths was that statistics were seriously manipulated,” he says. “There simply wasn’t any information about the fires. The authorities denied they even existed until smoke was surrounding the Kremlin.”
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Officials also dispute how much land the fires consumed last year. Estimates from various state agencies range from 2 million hectares (20,000 square kilometers) to 6 million hectares.
The government has made some changes to firefighting and forestry regulations, and on July 26 the forestry agency said a repeat of last year’s smog won’t happen.
But experts who say not nearly enough has been done voice fears that this year may see more unnecessary deaths as a new heat wave bakes parts of the country.
Already, fires are ravaging the Far East region of Yakutia, where Nikolai Shmatkov of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says satellite images show officials are again underreporting their extent.
“Greenpeace estimates 4 million hectares are burning in Yakutia,” he says, “but the official figures show only 1 million hectares on fire in the entire country.”
Fires are also raging in the northern Arkhangelsk region and in peat bogs surrounding Moscow. Greenpeace’s Kuksin, who spoke from a blaze outside Moscow where he is organizing volunteer firefighters, says the government is increasing the danger by denying the fires. “It’s trying to hide the problem instead of solving it,” he says, “and that leads to human casualties.”
Lucky So Far
Shmatkov from the WWF says one of the problem’s roots lies in the government’s view that forests are a resource to be exploited for logging, not something that needs protection. Instead of developing a proper culture of managing forests and preventing fires, he says, the authorities are treating last year’s fires as a freak act of God.
“For example, making sure hunters and others spending time in the forest don’t make fires in dangerous places,” he says, “those kinds of prevention measures haven’t been enacted despite last year’s catastrophe.”
Shmatkov says in the current heat wave, it’s a miracle that periodic rains have held back fires.
“We’re lucky,” he says. “If we don’t change our practices, last year’s supposedly accidental events will repeat again and again.”