Fire zone shrinks, concerns over air pollution in Moscow remain

Emergency officials say progress is being made by firefighters after weeks of wildfires raging across western and central Russia, though things remain tense in the other five affected areas, including the Moscow region.

The Emergencies Ministry is transferring extra resources to the areas where the battle against the fires is continuing.

The massive wildfires have destroyed dozens of provincial towns and villages, and killed more than 50 people.

The fire fronts in Russia have been reduced to just one-third of what they were six days ago, and the number of fires is down by half.

The head of the Emergencies Ministry, Sergey Shoigu, has dismissed reports of increased radiation levels, saying all localized fires have been quickly extinguished.

Earlier there were concerns that blazes in the region could raise radioactive particles into the air and spread them towards populated areas.

Fires have been completely extinguished in 14 regions in central Russia. Almost 170,000 people, including volunteers using more than 25,000 pieces of equipment, have been involved in tackling the flames.

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On Friday evening, two planes delivered firefighting equipment from the US to Moscow. More aircraft with similar cargo are expected to arrive in the capital during the weekend.

More than ten other European countries and neighboring states have provided assistance to Russia in combating the blazes.

Volunteers at risk

Meanwhile, the fires have claimed another life. Officials say the first death of a volunteer firefighter has been confirmed after his body was found in the Republic of Mordovia in Central Russia.

Over 4,000 volunteers are helping to extinguish fires in Central Russia, the Russian Emergencies Ministry reported. Many of them are representatives of youth organizations and former firefighters.

According to Sergey Shoigu, in order to protect towns and villages from fires, volunteer firefighting services similar to ones in USA and Europe, should be established in Russia.

“Today we have one quarter of the firefighters the USA has and half as many as Germany, if we take volunteer firefighters into consideration,” he said. “The USA has the same number of professional firefighters, and in addition to that, they have one million volunteers.”

Aleksandr Babaev is a drive-in cinema manager by night and a fire-fighter by day. He is one of the many Russian volunteers who are trying to save forests, villages and people.

“I have two toddlers,” Babaev told RT. “You wake up. The whole city is choking with smog. The kids are coughing. And you really want to get rid of this smog. But how? We understand that we ourselves have to do something.”

Worried that the fire is turning spectacular forests into wasteland, Aleksandr and his friends are spreading the word – volunteer! And people do.

“We take food so that people won't be hungry,” Aleksandr explained. “We've got food rations from the Emergencies ministry. It tastes good…Volunteers usually have no gloves. They are needed as the fire is everywhere and you can easily get hurt.”

Almost every day, a team of 20 – from different backgrounds – meets at the square. Half an hour later the real job begins. For volunteers, the forest becomes a war zone.

“Fire got close to the fire break,” Babaev claimed. “It can move over it and into the forest any minute. Our task is to hold back the fire, cover it with sand so it won't get into the village:

The team may be small, but they are punching above their weight.

“Today the fire is not so bad, but yesterday volunteers braved the worst,” said Nikolay Gusev, head of fire-fighting guard. “They put it out using anything to hand. We can't do without these guys here. Helicopters are a good thing – they are dropping water, but here on this ground, these guys face the fire close-up. Top work!”

Aleksandr is always on call. When the fire gets stronger he switches from walkie-talkie to shovel and gets going.

“We are stopping the fire so neither the forest or us get burned,” he told RT.

The eagerness of the volunteers is infectious.

Lena Kavun has refused to go on vacation and has followed her husband on his forest saving mission.

“It's hard to stay at home,”
she said. “I look for fire and call my husband. He extinguishes it with the shovel or drops water. When we are moving from place to place, I help with the carrying.”

The team stays in the forest until dawn. But while most of them rest at home, Aleksandr will work his regular shift at the drive-in cinema.

And the following morning he will gather more volunteers, who will again toil and sweat to save the forests.

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