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Fires shroud Moscow in smoke

Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is seen through the heavy smoke covering Moscow late Friday.  (Associated Press)
Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is seen through the heavy smoke covering Moscow late Friday. (Associated Press)

Heat wave worsened by more than 500 blazes

MOSCOW – A miasma of smoke from wildfires cloaked the sweltering Russian capital on Friday, turning the city’s spires into ominous blurs and grounding flights while glum pedestrians trudged the streets with faces hidden by surgical masks and water-soaked bandannas.

The smoke crept into many buildings, hovering about the ceiling in entryways. The State Historical Museum, on Red Square, was forced to close because it couldn’t stop its smoke detectors from going off.

Airborne pollutants such as carbon monoxide were four times higher than average readings – the worst seen to date in Moscow, city health officials reported. The concentration appeared likely to intensify; the state news agency ITAR-Tass reported smoke was thickening in the city’s southeast late Friday.

The fires, which are raging across much of western Russia, come after weeks of extraordinary heat – daily highs of up to 100 degrees compared with the summer average of 75 – and practically no rain.

The fires drew comment from officials and activists at international climate-change talks in Bonn, Germany.

The chief U.S. delegate said Russia’s situation and the recent floods that have devastated Pakistan are “consistent with the kind of changes we would expect to see from climate change and they will only get worse unless we act quickly.”

But the environmental group Greenpeace said the negotiators weren’t getting the message.

“Russia is burning and Pakistan is drowning – yet they seem happy to continue as if they have all the time in the world,” the group’s climate policy director, Wendel Trio, said in a statement from Bonn.

More than 500 blazes were burning nationwide Friday, mainly across western Russia, amid the country’s most intense heat wave in 130 years.

At least 52 people have died and 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the blazes. Russian officials have admitted that the 10,000 firefighters battling the blazes aren’t enough – an assessment echoed by many villagers, who said the fires swept through their hamlets in minutes.