Russian fires triggered by a record heat wave and drought are burning out of control in a great portion of the country’s eastern territory. Entire villages have burned to the ground and the death toll was 48 as of Aug. 6. The wildfires smothered Moscow under a think blanket of smoke and have left 4,000 people homeless. Some of the blazes threaten to re-release Russian nuclear contamination from the Chernobyl disaster locked up in the trees in certain areas. The Russian government has come under rare public criticism for being slow and ill-equipped to fight the fires.
Russian fires, heat wave and drought ravage nation
Russian fires have burned more than 1.6 million acres of land since they started, according to the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry. More than 155,000 personnel have been mobilized to fight the fires. The Wall Street Journal reports that in a 24-hour period, more than 403 new forest fires ignited while 293 were extinguished. A total of 520 fires were blazing across Russia on Aug. 6. The record Russian heat wave that sparked the fires—as well as the Russia’s worst drought in at least three decades—shows no sign of letting up: Scorching heat will continue until at least Aug. 12, with temperatures in some parts of the country as high 107 degrees.
Russian government feels the heat
Russian fires have also ignited public anger as the government struggles to get the disaster under control. The Financial Times reports that the Russian fires underscore the Russian governments inability to protect its citizens from both natural and man-made disasters. Despite soaring energy revenues that have transformed it into a country with a trillion-dollar plus economy, Russia still suffers from flawed governance, a slapdash approach to safety and a dilapidated infrastructure. Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre told the Times that the death toll is much higher in Russia than in other countries where such fires occur because the system is “absolutely dysfunctional.” Petrov said communication was far too slow in the “super-centralised” political system put in place under Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.
Fires threaten Russian nuclear contamination across Europe
Russian fires are also raising concern about the threat of nuclear contamination. AFP reports that radioactive cesium 137 from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is locked up in the trees and dead leaves in forests in certain areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Philippe Renaud, head of the environmental radiation laboratory at France’s IRSN nuclear safety institute, said that if trees in those areas burn, the Russian nuclear contamination would be released into the air where it could be breathed in by people as far away as France.