Russia is struggling to battle wildfires which have claimed 52 lives and choked Moscow, as the US, Germany and France asked citizens avoid travel to the capital and other stricken areas.
Moscow moved to protect military and nuclear sites from the onslaught of its worst ever blazes in modern history and launched an appeal for volunteers to help stem the relentless march.
The emergency situations ministry is seeking the help “of all people who can pitch in”, a spokesman told AFP.
The defence ministry ordered the evacuation of missiles from a depot outside the smothered capital as authorities warned of the risk of fires reactivating contamination in an area hit by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Germany closed its embassy until further notice and advised citizens against “non-essential” travel to the affected regions while the US State Department asked nationals to seriously review travel plans.
“Forest fires and extreme high temperatures in the Moscow region and surrounding areas of central Russia have produced hazardous levels of air pollution and caused numerous flight delays and cancellations in Moscow,” the department said in a warning set to expire September 5.
“The hazardous air quality means that persons with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low. Everyone should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors,” it added.
The French foreign ministry also asked citizens to avoid travel to nine affected regions and announced it was sending experts to determine “the most adequate aid” it could offer.
Moscow’s iconic landmarks such as the spires of the Kremlin towers or the onion domes of Orthodox churches were largely invisible from a distance on Friday as a heavy smog hung over the city after the worst heatwave in decades broke out in July.
“I woke up this morning, looked out of the window and saw a monstrous situation,” declared President Dmitry Medvedev. “We all want this heatwave to pass but this is not in our hands, it is decided above.”
He called on Moscovites to show patience, although he acknowledged “we’re suffocating, you can’t breathe”.
The emergencies ministry said the total area ablaze was down slightly at 179,600 hectares (444,000 acres) and for the first time it was putting out more fires than were appearing.
The fires have claimed the lives of 52 people, the ministry of health said in an updated toll.
Russia’s football federation meanwhile moved a friendly match with Bulgaria from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, fearing for the health of the players.
NASA images have shown the fires are easily visible from space and the US space agency said the smoke had at times reached 12 kilometres (six miles) into the stratosphere.
A particular worry for the Russian authorities has been fires around the city of Sarov in central Russia which houses the country’s main nuclear research centre. It is still closed to foreigners, as in Soviet times.
The Russian nuclear agency has said that all radioactive and explosive materials have been removed from the centre and the emergencies ministry has assured the public it has the situation under control.
Nearly 500 soldiers were battling flames in the area.
Military prosecutors said Friday that a fire on July 29 had destroyed a paratroops base outside Moscow, the second confirmed case of the wildfires hitting a major strategic site.
Medvedev has already warned Russia’s top two naval commanders and sacked a string of officers for failing to halt a fire last week that destroyed 13 warehouses and 17 storage areas at a naval logistics base.
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces were also working flat out to prevent the fires spreading to the Bryansk region in western Russia where the soil is still contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Russia’s chief doctor Gennady Onishchenko said 78 children’s holiday camps had been closed due to the heatwave and smoke and 10,000 children taken home to their parents.
The mortality rate in Moscow soared by 50 percent in July compared to the same period last year, according to Yevgenia Smirnova, an official from the Moscow registry office.