Wildfires Choke Moscow With Smoke

The Russian capital Moscow is covered in dense smog from wildfires that have been burning since late July. The fires have ravaged western Russia, killing hundreds of people and leaving more than 4,000 homeless. Reporter Julia Ioffe, who writes for a number of American publications from her base in Moscow, talks to Steve Inskeep about the blazes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going next to Moscow, which is covered in smog from wildfires. These fires have ravaged villages and cities throughout western Russia, killing at least 50 people and leaving more than 4,000 homeless. We're going to talk about this with Julia Ioffe, who writes for a number of American publications from her base in Moscow. And when you look out the window, what do you see?

Ms. JULIA IOFFE (Journalist): I'm looking out my window now, Steve, and I'm seeing what looks like a thick fog. I can't see a lot of the buildings that I usually see out my window, and, of course, it's not a fog, it's a thick blanket of smoke from the peat bog fires around Moscow.

INSKEEP: And do you feel this when you breathe?

Ms. IOFFE: Absolutely. It feels like I smoke a pack of cigarettes every time I go outside.

INSKEEP: What is the government doing to deal with this?

Ms. IOFFE: The federal government, over the course of the wildfires, have mobilized over 160,000 people and 26,000 units of cars, planes, helicopters to fight the fires. Meanwhile, a lot of people are reporting that when they called for help, none came. Even the commander of a naval aviation base said he had no help for 10 days in fighting back a fire that eventually engulfed the base.

INSKEEP: How many fires are there around Moscow and what's causing them?

Ms. IOFFE: Around Moscow, there are a couple dozen fires. Across the country, there are now just under 560 fires. And what keeps igniting them is the hot weather. The temperatures just won't drop, and meteorologists are predicting that the temperature won't fall for another week or so. And because things have been so hot and so dry for so long that the winds spread the fires quite easily.

INSKEEP: If people simply cannot stand the smoke in a place like Moscow, is there any place they can flee to?

Ms. IOFFE: Well, the Moscow authorities said they've set up 123 centers of rest, as they call them. The problems is that most of these centers have either not opened or don't have air conditioning. A lot of people have fled the city over the weekend. Rail tickets and plane tickets were sold out. Other people are checking into hotels, trying to sleep in their cars if they have air conditioning in there, or just trying to get out of the city to visit relatives somewhere else where there's no smoke.

INSKEEP: What is this doing to Moscow's mortality rate?

Ms. IOFFE: Well, authorities have finally been forced to acknowledge this morning that Moscow's mortality rate has more than doubled over the past month. And over the past week since the smoke has blown into the city, mortality has spiked. There's a record number of ambulance calls put in. Some of the doctors in the ambulances are actually fainting 'cause there's no air conditioning in the ambulances. But some people estimate that the morality rate is even higher than Moscow authorities acknowledge.

INSKEEP: Julia Ioffe is a journalist based in Moscow. Thanks very much.

Ms. IOFFE: Thank you.

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