MOSCOW: Dozens of flights were delayed and concerns grew over public health Sunday as Moscow choked in the worst smog in living memory, blown over the Russian capital from spreading wildfires.
The city’s iconic landmarks like the Kremlin towers and the wedding-cake Stalin-era skyscrapers were completely obscured from a distance as the acrid smoke that has suffocated the capital for days showed no signs of shifting.
The wildfires have sparked a major crisis in central Russia, with the authorities rushing to protect strategic sites including the country’s main nuclear research facility from the flames.
Drivers put on their car headlights in broad daylight to see through the smog while the sun shone as a hazy disc easily viewed by the naked eye with little discomfort.
Up to 2,000 passengers were stranded at Moscow’s Domodedovo international airport when major delays hit their flights after they had crossed security and passport control to the departures area, the ITAR-TASS news agency said.
Domodedovo, in the south of Moscow, was the airport worst hit by the smog with dozens of departing flights delayed early Sunday and only a handful of aircraft able to land, its departures information showed.
"Passengers need to be warned that delays are unavoidable," Sergei Izvolsky of state aviation committee Rosavitsia told state television, adding the delays could be anything from 30 minutes to several hours.
Of Moscow’s other international airports, Vnukovo to the east was also experiencing delays, although the impact of the smog appeared to be less severe, while Sheremetyevo to the north was largely unaffected, officials said.
Residents of Moscow have rushed to escape the smog-drenched capital, with travel agents reporting package tours to destinations popular with Russians like Egypt, Montenegro and Turkey completely sold out.
"In the last week the demand for tickets from Moscow sold online has gone up by 20 percent," Irina Turina, spokeswoman of the Russian Union of Tour Operators, told Moscow Echo radio.
"For this weekend there are no places on aircraft to resort destinations and next weekend very few. The smoke has prompted this desire of Muscovites to leave the city," she said.
State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said that carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were now 6.6 times higher than acceptable levels.
Tiny invisible particles from the fires were also present in concentrations 2.2 times higher than the norm, with specialists warning these could prove highly dangerous if they entered the human system.
Controversially, Moscow’s high-profile Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had refused to break off his holidays and return to the city. But reports said Sunday he had after all decided to return to the capital.
Moscow residents and tourists tried to protect themselves from the smog by donning medical masks or even just clutching wet rags to their faces. But health officials have warned that the best precaution was to stay at home.
The wildfires that have killed 52 people were still spreading in central Russia, the emergencies ministry said, as weather forecasters said Russia’s worst heatwave in decades would continue in the coming days.
There were worries the flames could hit Russia’s main nuclear research site in Sarov, a city closed to foreigners, but officials said the situation was under control and soldiers deployed there would be sent elsewhere.
This photo taken on Aug. 7 shows a man wearing a gas masks to protect himself from the smog in Moscow due to forest fires. (AFP Photo/ Andrey Smirnov)