08/05/2010, 00.00
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Russian Orthodox Church to help fight against forest fires as Putin’s responsibilities emerge

by Nina Achmatova
Patriarch Kirill urges the faithful to pray for rain and provide help to victims. At least 40 people have died so far and 650,000 hectares have been devastated. Moscow is wrapped by a thick cloud of smoke. Peat bogs are complicating the situation. Drained in Soviet times, they now burn easily. Forest guards cut by 75 per cent under Putin.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – The Russian Orthodox Church is going to provide help to victims of the record heat wave and forest fires that have devastated large areas of Russia over the past week. In addition to asking the faithful to pray “God to send rain to our country,” Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia called on Orthodox communities to mobilise to raise aid. Since Monday, clothing and other items have been collected for the families affected by the fires. Each parish will soon also start raising funds, Kirill said.

“National tragedy”

In the meantime, Russia continues to burn. A week of scorched earth has left 40 people dead, 650,000 hectares of mostly forestland destroyed, 1,800 houses burnt and 2,000 people left homeless.

Economic losses have reached US$ 215 million, Regional Development Minister Viktor Basargin said.

The Kremlin has declared a state of emergency in seven areas of the Federation: Mari El, on the Volga River, Vladimir, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Rjazan, the Republic of Mordovia and the Moscow region.

“Smoke without flames,” titled many local newspapers; smoke that has enveloped the capital; smoke that has covered the entire urban area in a thick and muggy cloud making breathing nigh impossible.

The authorities have dispatched 2,000 soldiers to help fire-fighters contain the blaze, which could cause “irreparable damages” as President Dmitri Medvedev said.

The weather forecast appears to justify his fears. Temperatures have broken the records of the past 130 years. Tomorrow they should reach 40-41 degrees Celsius in Moscow and no rain is expected for the next days.

In the meantime, international aid is starting to arrive. Ukraine has sent two fire fighting Antonov 32P. Other nations are providing other forms of assistance.

Peat bog problems

So far, there have been 776 fires, including 57 peat bogs. Summer fires in Russia are not new even if this year they have been particularly devastating because of the scorching heat. According to Moscow Regional Fire Chief Evgeny Sekirin, “the problem can be solved by flooding the peat bogs.”

At the time of the Soviet Union, peat was intensely used as fuel. In order to increase supplies, the authorities drained large swamp areas. However, “dry peat is self-igniting and burns for a long time without flames,” Sekirin said.

However, any attempt to flood drained peat bogs would cost around US$ 650 million and would take at least three years. Governors from the affected regions and federal authorities are currently discussing the issue.

President Medvedev said that about 2,000 houses would be rebuilt before the winter. He also pledged US$ 100,000 in aid to homeowners who lost property. Prime Minister Putin ordered governors to start reconstruction. “I want plans for each region, city and house,” he said. However, “beyond emergency measure, we shall decide based on future perspectives,” he added.

Environmentalists blame the situation on the government’s short-sighted policies and lack of vision towards fire prevention. They say that fires are as bad as they are because in 2007, under pressure from the lumber industry lobby, then President Putin, “introduced a new forest code that dramatically cut the number of forest guards who could monitor and act in case of fires,” said Alexey Yaroshenko from Greenpeace Russia. “Forest guards were reduced by 75 per cent and 12,000 people were hired for paper work,” he added.

Perhaps the summer 2010 will be a wakeup call for the Kremlin to pay more attention to the environment, whose problems it has tended to underestimate.

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