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Russia wildfires death toll rises

Wildfires that have wiped out Russian forests, villages and a military base have sent the thickest blanket of smog yet over Moscow, as emergency officials said the death toll had reached 48.

Passengers on Moscow's subway said a haze was hovering above platforms, stinging the eyes and throat, as City Hall warned of health risks from the smoke carrying harmful gases including carbon monoxide.

Firefighters have extinguished 293 fires, but another 403 were spotted in the last 24 hours while more than 500 continue to rage over large swathes of countryside, the Emergencies Ministry said in a statement.

Russia is suffering its worst heatwave on record, helping to ignite forest and bog fires across stretches of central and western regions. Dry winds have sent clouds of smog from peat bog fires over Moscow, but Wednesday's was the thickest yet, with the haze obscuring the capital's landmarks and penetrating the subway system.

Tens of thousands of troops and volunteers are helping 10,000 firefighters battle blazes in more than a dozen western provinces, seven of which are under a state of emergency.

Moscow weather officials released a statement cautioning the city's 10 million residents to guard themselves against the smoke, saying pollution indicators reached a "critical barrier" overnight and "even healthy people must take preventative measures". It did not say what action should be taken, but officials have urged people to wear face masks outdoors.

The polluting smog comes from fires of peat bogs to the south and east of Moscow. The bogs were drained in Soviet times to harvest the peat, leaving them prone to wildfires - especially in heatwaves.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said some wildfires are out of control, contradicting days of reassurances from other officials that the situation was under control. Prosecutors are investigating possible criminal negligence in several regions in connection with the fires.

President Dmitry Medvedev plans a security council meeting on Wednesday to discuss protecting strategic defence facilities, a day after officials confirmed the fires had engulfed a military base near Moscow containing unspecified aviation equipment. At least half of the buildings at the base were destroyed. Russian media said up to 200 naval aircraft may have been destroyed.

The weather this week will not help the firefighting efforts, as temperatures in Moscow and to the south and east are forecast to reach 38C (100F).


From Belfast Telegraph