MOSCOW – MOSCOW (AP) — The skies were clear over Moscow Thursday, giving residents a desperately needed break from air pollution thanks to favorable winds and some success in fighting wildfires that have choked the capital with clouds of acrid smog.
People walked through the streets without the masks that have become ubiquitous. The towers of the Kremlin and domes of Orthodox cathedrals could be seen without the yellowish veil that's shrouded them for a week.
"I can finally open the balcony door to let my cat warm in the sun," said economics student Evgeniya Lavrova, 21. "You walk in a street, feel a light breeze and want to breathe again."
Weather experts warned that the smog could return over the weekend after winds change again, but chief of Russia's main weather service, Roman Wilfand, said that the unprecedented heat wave that has tormented Russia for most of the summer would end next week.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said Thursday that the area engulfed by fires around the capital has shrunk by more than quarter over the past 24 hours. It said firefighters have also managed to significantly reduce the size of fires in other parts of Russia, but 562 fires covering over 80,000 hectares (nearly 200,000 acres) were still burning Thursday.
The ministry said all wildfires in areas contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster have been quickly extinguished and radiation levels have remained normal.
Environmentalists and forest experts have warned that radioactive particles left over from the Chernobyl catastrophe could be thrown into the air by wildfires and blown into other areas by the wind.
Hundreds of wildfires sparked by the hottest summer ever in Russia have engulfed large areas and Moscow's death rate has doubled to 700 people a day. City officials said morgues have been overflowing.
A Dutch-based environmental group, Wetlands International, said Wednesday that the suffocating smog over Moscow had been generated mostly by fires in drained peatlands near the Russian capital. It said that despite their relatively small area, such fires cause the worst pollution and are extremely difficult to extinguish.
The group welcomed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's call for rewetting the drained peatlands as the only efficient way to prevent such fires in the future. The water had been drained so people could extract the peat and burn it for fuel.
The governor of Moscow region, Boris Gromov, said Thursday that work already is under way to flood the bogs with water. He said that it would require laying the total of 300 kilometers (about 190 miles) of water pipes.
Despite some success in combatting the fires, residents of two villages southeast of Moscow were evacuated Thursday because of advancing fires raging nearby, the regional police said.
The hottest summer since record-keeping began 130 years ago has cost Russia more than a third of its wheat crop and prompted the government to ban wheat exports through the end of the year. The measure has drawn strong criticism from farmers, who argued that national reserves were enough to meet domestic demand and allow for exports.
President Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday that the government would earmark 35 billion rubles (about $1.2 billion) to bail out stranded farmers.
He also ordered the Cabinet and regional officials to monitor domestic market to prevent food prices from spinning out of control. Bread prices in stores already have risen.
Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.