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“Do you wear a mask when you go outside?” I asked the nurse, looking out the hospital window at the thick stinky smog that enveloped Moscow on Wednesday.
“No, we are Russians. We believe in luck (авось),” she answered. Not something you want to hear from a medical professional. Especially from one who is treating you.
The nurse was cleaning the second-degree burn I suffered on my left foot on Wednesday after stumbling into a (imperceptibly) burning sandpit 140 kilometers outside Moscow.
I was taking photographs of the remains of Kadanok, a village that had burned entirely, when one wrong step left me sinking into something that felt like a thousand boiling knives stabbing themselves into my foot.
Russia is burning. Whatever you’ve heard, multiply it by a thousand and that’s how bad it is. Moscow is suffocating. Its suburbs are in flames, mainly bubbling in the peat bogs underground, giving off fumes that are hovering over hundreds of square miles.
In Moscow, the fires are many things — a nuisance, a health hazard, a topic of conversation. In the villages outside the capital, they’re one thing — a tragedy. Those who have lost their homes have been resettled to nearby villages, while the ground continues to smolder and small flames continue to litter the ubiquitous forests. I’m not a good enough writer to find the words to describe the stench of the heavy smoke in the air.
And there is no one to help. With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle. These people have been left to fend for themselves. In Beloomut, people, many of them pensioners, are picking up shovels and digging trenches for themselves.
This isn’t Siberia or the Far East. This is a suburb of Moscow, incredibly poor and totally forgotten.
These fires are, of course, an act of nature. Yet the heat wave here, with temperatures soaring above 100 degress Farenheit, started about a month ago. There were no warnings of fires, even though lower temperatures prompted similar fires eight years ago. Many have also criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s decision, taken four years ago as president, to devolve control of Russia’s forests to regional authorities. That meant a major cut in the number of forest rangers, and the absence of a unified response to disasters like this one.
Putin has been all over TV, promising to take personal control of the situation. In the single most bizarre Kremlin PR move I’ve seen since moving here four years ago, state TV ran an orchestrated phone call between Putin and Medvedev, aiming — but, in its poor quality, failing — to assure a worried population. Since then, Medvedev has cut short his vacation and come back to Moscow to fire some people (the same can’t be said of the head of the Moscow Region Forestry Service, who remains on holiday). Putin continues to jaunt around the country in a televised spectacle. And Russia continues to burn.