TAGANROG, Russia (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday cancelled a state of emergency in three out of seven Russian regions affected by forest fires.
“The state of emergency has been cancelled in Voronezh and Vladimir regions and the republic of Mari El,” Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalia Timakova told reporters in Taganrog, a town in the rural Rostov region, 1,200 km (745 miles) south of Moscow. She said the situation in the regions had improved significantly.
Russia’s worst heatwave since records began has set ablaze thousands of hectares (acres) of forest, killing 54 people and leaving thousands homeless. The Kremlin declared a state of emergency in seven regions on August 2.
Smouldering underground fires in dried-out peat bogs blanketed Moscow in smoke for much of last week, causing mortality rates to soar. Strong winds this week cleared the smoke, at least temporarily.
Environmentalists have expressed fears the fires could release radioactive pollution from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster into the atmosphere as contaminated woodland in the Bryansk region southwest of Moscow goes up in smoke.
“The laboratories ... are continuing to monitor the situation in the areas contaminated during the Chernobyl disaster,” Vladimir Stepanov, head of the crisis management centre at the Emergencies Ministry, said in a statement posted on its website.
“I would like to note that there has been no overshooting of radiation levels (above normal limits).”
Bryansk, which borders Ukraine, was among the regions worst affected by the Chernobyl disaster, the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster, which dumped radioactive dust across Ukraine, western Russia and Belarus.
A statement from Russia’s forest protection agency said fires covering an area of 39 square km had been registered in radiation-polluted regions. The deputy head of the agency said on Wednesday most of the fires had been extinguished.
The overall area of Russia’s forest fires decreased by 100 square km on Thursday from 927 square km a day ago, the Emergencies Ministry statement said. More than 50,000 people were putting the fires out.
Weather forecasts for the next four to five days may favour the eruption of new fires but temperatures will cool gradually from August 17, Roman Vilfand, head of the state hydrometeorological service told a news conference on Thursday.
Writing by Alexei Anishchuk; additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; editing by Michael Stott and Janet Lawrence