Smoke from Russian fires covers Helsinki on Monday afternoon
Environment officials fear toxins from burning landfills and dumps
Smoke from forest fires burning in Russia drifted into Southern Finland once again on Monday afternoon. In the Helsinki region the air suddenly turned grey and the smell of the smoke was noticeable indoors as well.
The small particle content of the air in Helsinki reached record levels - about 20 times the normal figure.
"The last time that there were readings like this at the monitoring station on Mannerheimintie was during the fire at the railway warehouses", says Maria Myllynen, air quality expert for the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council.
The small particle content got back to normal by half past five in the afternoon.
At 3:45 PM the cloud of smoke greatly reduced visibility at sea. Witnesses in boats and ships off Helsinki said that the city disappeared completely into the smoke for a few minutes.
When the smoke was at its thickest, visibility was down to about one kilometre.
The smoke was also seen and felt in the south-east of the country, close to the border.
"The situation was worse compared with a few previous days, and is now about the same as it was just over a week ago", said Harri Majander of the Southeast Finland Environment Centre in Kotka.
Meteorologist Marjo Hippi of the Finnish Meteorological Institute said that the smoke was brought into Finland by air currents coming in from the east and southeast.
"There will probably be smoke in the coming days, because the winds will stay in the same direction. Showers can weaken the smoke somewhat", Hippi notes.
In addition to forest fires, a burning landfill outside Vyborg is contributing to the smoke. According to Markku Haranne, the Director of Provincial Rescue Services at the State Provincial Office of Southern Finland, the dump in question covers about ten square kilometres, and is seen as medium-sized by Finnish standards. Haranne notes that such fires are difficult to put out, especially under the present weather conditions.
Haranne is prepared to send two experts in putting out fires if a request were to come from Russia.
Tapio Lindholm, an expert working for the Finnish Environment Institute, notes that there are many illegal rubbish dumps in the Karelian Isthmus.
"Some of them have certainly caught fire in connection with the forest fires. It is possible for just about anything to be burning there: junk, car batteries, industrial waste", he says.
"It is likely that a large landfill fire will be reflected in Finland in the form of a deviant particle profile."
Folke Rask of the rescue service of East Uusimaa will not speculate on what kinds of toxins may form at the Vyborg landfill.
"There can be toxic waste, and just about anything. I had a start when I heard that a landfill is on fire over there. The wind is blowing from the east, and the smoke comes here quickly."
The largest wildfires in Russia are in the areas of Vyborg, and in Kingisepp on the Russian-Estonian border. Fires have also been reported in the Kaliningrad area.
"Microparticle content is worst in the incomplete combustion phase", says Pentti Partanen of the Ministry of the Interior. He says that the thickness of the smoke is probably linked with efforts to put the fires out.
Finland has repeatedly offered assistance with extinguishing the fires, but Russian authorities have still not seen any need to take up the offers. Monday's greyout seems likely to increase calls for a stiffer response by Finnish political leaders (see separate article).
Previously in HS International Edition:
Long-awaited rain and southerly wind clear smoke from Russian forest fires (16.8.2006)