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Chernobyl threat

August 11, 2010

A forest watchdog said Wednesday the Russian wildfires have already raged across areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Earlier, emergency officials said they were starting to get the fires under control.

Soldiers spray water from hoses in a forest
More than 7,600 square kilometers have been scorched by the firesImage: AP

Fires have blazed across hundreds of hectares in areas contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an official from the Russian forest watchdog Roslesozaschita said Wednesday.

"According to data from August 6, in the Bryansk region alone 28 fires covering an area of 269 hectares (665 acres) were recorded on these radioactive lands," an official from the group told the Interfax news agency.

"There are maps of the [nuclear] contamination, there are maps of the fires. Anyone can put the two together. Why deny this information?" added the official in response to denials earlier this week that the fires had reached the Bryansk region.

There are fears that radioactive soil in contaminated areas could be swirled into the air along with ash.

The environmental group Greenpeace on Tuesday accused Russian authorities of downplaying the radioactive danger, saying that 20 fires could be seen raging in contaminated areas on satellite photos.

American tourists in Moscow wearing face masks in the smog
Moscow has been blanketed by thick smog from the fires for daysImage: AP

"The elevated radioactive radiation will not lead to new contamination as with Chernobyl," said Greenpeace activist Vladimir Chuprov. "Nevertheless, smaller radioactive quantities should not be underestimated," he said.

There have been signs of improvement on the ground however, with emergency officials saying the total area of the wildfires had halved since early Tuesday. But authorities also said the number of spot fires had increased by 55 to 612.

Government under fire

The fresh concerns come as the Russian government and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were sharply criticized by the country's press over its reaction to the natural disaster.

"His PR engineers can think of nothing more other than to yet again sit him behind the controls of an aircraft," leading business daily Vedomosti commented, referring to reports Putin had flown a water bombing jet to douse fires in one of the worst-affected regions.

"This is a tunnel vision of the PR makers who believe that a TV picture of Putin behind the wheel of something is an eternal panacea for falling ratings," it continued.

The usually pro-Kremlin daily Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote sarcastically that the "Russian authorities are heroically (if you believe the television reports) fighting the forest fires."

"They are fighting the fires, having allowed these fires right from the start to reach a catastrophic magnitude," it added.

A Russian fire fighter takes a short break as forest fire came very close to the village of Murmino
Thousands of firefighters have been deployed to fight the blazesImage: AP

Firefighters continue the battle

Russian firefighters are continuing to try and control wildfire blazes that have sprung up due to the heat and the drought.

An area 10 times that of New York City, more than 7,600 square kilometers (2,934.4 square miles), has been scorched by the fires, and so far at least 54 people have been killed.

The fires are still threatening key nuclear sites, such as Russia's main nuclear research center in Sarov and the nuclear waste processing plant at Mayak.

Author: Darren Mara, Catherine Bolsover (AFP/Reuters/dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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