Russian fires

The scorching heat and acrid smoke that has made life hell in Moscow for the last fortnight has doubled its normal death-rate to 700 a day. Muscovites living with temperatures over 32 degrees all last week are fleeing the city in large numbers or staying away from work, as firefighters in the countryside battle wildfires covering 1,740 square kilometres. Weekend concentrations of carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances were seven times above what is considered safe, while the ministry of emergency situations has appealed for volunteer firefighters, acknowledging that the 10,000 already deployed are overwhelmed, reported “Kazakh-Zerno” IA with reference to the “Irish Times“.

Extreme weather conditions, however, appear to have compounded a man-made disaster waiting to happen, and there is now growing anger over the government’s response and the parlous state of both fire and forestry services. When the wildfires broke out, the media reported, firefighters discovered forest roads overgrown and in poor repair, ponds intended to provide water for their tanks filled with sludge and fire trucks broken down or in a state of disrepair.

They blame a 2006 reform of the country’s forest code that allowed logging companies to contract out firefighting. It also dismantled the national fire service’s effective network of monitors, replacing them with satellite and aerial-based technology that has proved unable to detect fires early before they spread. When the fires broke out, contractors were unprepared and poorly equipped, local officials say. A paper from the Academy of Sciences’ Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics three years ago warned prophetically that “the first dry year after the liquidation of the system of forest protection would become a catastrophe” for Russia.

Meanwhile, the ripple effect of a likely one-third decline in the annual grain harvest has resulted in a dramatic rise in world prices of wheat and barley and an emergency ban by Moscow on wheat exports. But the attempt to protect Russian consumers by the world’s third largest wheat exporter sharply exacerbated market pressures that many still fear could plunge developing countries into another round of the acute food price inflation that led to riots in 2008. That danger is still there, but initial panic in markets, and prices, have since eased on confirmation that international grain stocks are remarkably healthy – some 50 per cent up on two years ago. This is equivalent to 14 times the amount of grain lost in Russia’s drought or a third of global consumption. This time the market should bear the strain.

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