Russia faces wave of forest fires

By MANSUR MIROVALEV | June 9, 2011 | 11:00 AM EDT

MOSCOW (AP) — A devastating wave of wildfires across Russia could ravage millions of acres of forests and cause worse damage than last year's catastrophic forest and peat-bog fires, environmentalists and officials said Thursday.

"We're burning, burning badly," Greenpeace's forestry expert, Alexey Yaroshenko, said. "This year's situation is already much worse than last year's."

In 2010, an unprecedented heat-wave triggered fires that killed 55 people, destroyed thousands of houses and 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of forests — an area slightly larger than Oregon.

This year, three firefighters have died, and dozens of wildfires have already engulfed more than 600,000 hectares (1.48 million acres) of forests — nearly three times more territory than this time last year, the Emergencies Ministry reported.

Greenpeace claimed that the government is silencing information about fires, especially about the renewal of peat-bog fires around Moscow that cloaked the capital with acrid, toxic smoke last year.

"There are dozens of them around Moscow," Greenpeace's Grigory Kuksin told journalists. "It's technically impossible to put out some of them already."

Once ignited, peat-bogs can smolder for months or years, surviving heavy rains and snow. While burning, they emit acrid smoke that can aggravate asthma, bronchitis and heart conditions. Moscow last year was engulfed in a thick blanket of smog that combined with the intense heat doubled the death rate.

Russia's forestry agency chief played down the threat to Moscow this year, but admitted that a surge in forest and peat-bog fires is imminent.

"The summer will be tense and uneasy," Viktor Maslyakov told journalists.

He said that the government should declare an emergency situation in three Siberian regions, where unusually hot and dry weather caused multiple wildfires.

Russia's forests constitute 22 percent of the world's total woodlands, an area larger than the continental United States.

"Our planet has two lungs — the Amazon rain forest and the Siberian taiga," said Vladimir Gandzha of Russia's Nature Protection Society, the nation's oldest environmental group. "The latter that is blazing now."