The fires ravaging central and southern Russia have one general cause – the exceptional heatwave endured by the region this summer – but many particular ones as well.
These include the burgeoning development into forested areas outside cities, driven by speculators, unregulated private building and the post-Soviet surge in car ownership. There is also the casual attitude to safety and official rules of all kinds that prevails in so many areas of Russian life. This week dozens of defence ministry officials, including the head of naval logistics, were dismissed for negligence after fire destroyed a big base south of Moscow.
If the causes are more various and harder to pin down than the temperatures alone, the effects are there for all to see. Almost 600 fires are still burning, concentrated in some of the richest parts of the country; 50 people have died, and thousands have lost homes and livelihoods. Major industrial and military installations have been affected; a sensitive plant at the top-secret nuclear centre at Sarov has been moved as a precaution. Yesterday Moscow was shrouded in smoke and forced to restrict flights at two of its airports. And the Russian government has halted all wheat exports until at least the end of the year. The restrictions, a response in part to popular fears about shortages at home, reflect poor harvests in Russia and Central Asia due to drought. Wheat prices globally have shot up, and other food prices cannot be far behind.
In sharp contrast to the Soviet years, the Russian government has been open about the scale of the disaster and the damage. It has also solicited foreign help. And so long as the fires burn, attention will be focused, as it should be, on relief efforts. When the weather turns, however, as is forecast for next week, the dangers will not necessarily be over. Disasters in Russia have a record of producing political, as well as material, fallout. After a long, hot summer, Russia could be facing an autumn that is just as long and hot in other ways.