Moscow skies clear of smog

Millions of Muscovites enjoyed a welcome break from the choking smog that shrouded their city as strong winds clear the skies.

More than 500 fires still burning across western Russia

Millions of Muscovites enjoyed a welcome — if temporary — break from the choking smog that shrouded their city as strong winds cleared the skies and firefighters made headway in tackling some of the fires burning outside the capital.

On Thursday, people were once again able to venture outside without masks. Familiar landmarks that had been obscured by pollution reappeared.

Outside Moscow, the size of the fire zone dropped by a quarter since Wednesday.  

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev cancelled states of emergency in three regions of the country where wildfires had been raging for weeks.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said all fires in areas that had been contaminated by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster had been extinguished. There had been concerns those fires in the Bryansk region would spread radioactive particles farther afield.

Tests have shown radiation levels remain normal, the government says.

But fires are still burning near other nuclear sites, including a top secret processing plant near the border with Kazakhstan.

Smog could return

Weather forecasters warned the smog could be back in a few days when winds are expected to shift again. But the record-setting heat wave that has kept temperatures near 40 C for much of the summer is finally expected to lift next week.

The smog in Moscow is being blamed for a doubling of the city's death rate to 700 people daily.

"I could not stay at home," one pensioner told CBC News at one of the 100 cooling centres set up around Moscow. "I could hardly stand it there."

Tens of thousands of firefighters have been mobilized across the country. Officials said 562 fires covering more than 80,000 hectares were still burning Thursday.

The fires near Moscow were mainly in peat bogs that had been drained to allow residents to harvest the peat as fuel.  Work is already under way to flood the bogs to prevent a recurrence.

With files from The Associated Press