Moscow - A day after acrid smoke from forest and peat fires blanketed Moscow, a light rain on Friday cleared the air - and the government claimed credit.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said it drew rain clouds to the smog-shrouded capital and created artificial showers by switching on a large ionizer atop a ministry building in western Moscow.
"Yes, we did it," ministry spokesperson Viktor Beltsov said proudly of the drizzle that brought long-awaited relief after several rainless weeks. He said the ministry kept the device working on Friday in an effort to repeat the first success.
It was the first time the ministry had used the equipment, developed by its research institute, Beltsov said. The institute's director, Mikhail Shakhramanian said the device, a metal cage crisscrossed by tungsten wire, emits a vertical flow of oxygen ions that stirs the air and raises humidity.
"The flow of ions blew a hole in the smog layer and drove its particles up higher," Shakhramanian said. "At the next stage, oxygen ions concentrated humidity."
Shakhramanian promised that the ioniser would cause more rain in the following days, but added that the process would be slow because the air is bone-dry.
Shakhramanian pointed to weather forecasts - which had called for sunny, smoky skies on Friday - as proof that his device, not nature, was responsible for the rain.
The smog that hung over the city through much of the summer peaked on Thursday, sharply cutting visibility, slowing traffic to a crawl and suspending flights at some Moscow airports. Commuters coughed as they inhaled the smoke that hid big buildings and filled subway stations.
Friday's drizzle stunned many residents. As early-morning commuters listened to the dreary forecasts, light rain dripped down their windshields.
"It helped. I could breathe today, in contrast to yesterday," said Dmitry Chaprov, an accountant.
Still, some were skeptical of the ministry's claim. Chaprov said he did not doubt rain could be man-made but said it would probably involve more sophisticated equipment than Russia could afford.
"It's all fantasy," said Lyudmila, a retiree who gave only her first name. "You can't cause a rain with an ioniser; it's sheer nonsense."
Meteorologists warned that more substantial rain would be needed to put out the forest and peat bog fires blazing around Moscow. The weather was expected to remain dry over the weekend, but some rain was forecast for early next week.
Efforts to change the weather are relatively common in Russia. Last weekend, the city government drew criticism for using cloud-seeding planes to prevent rain from falling during celebrations marking the 855th anniversary of the capital's founding.
Despite the drizzle, the carbon monoxide level in Moscow was more than twice admissible levels Friday, the emergency ministry said. Doctors suggested people stay indoors if possible, and some schools cancelled classes.
According to the ministry, fires covered 537 hectares around the capital as of early Friday, many of them underground in smoldering peat bogs. Firefighting efforts involved 3 500 people and four aircraft, which dropped 500 metric tons of water, the ministry said.
The area around Moscow has registered its lowest rainfall in a century, Russian media reported, and the smog was the worst the city had seen in 30 years.
Prosecutors have launched a criminal probe into local officials for negligence, and more than 3 000 people have been fined for violating fire safety rules, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Smog also enveloped other Russian cities, including St Petersburg, where emergency workers fought more than 240 fires in the surrounding region. The haze from the fires reached southeastern Finland and southern Sweden on Thursday. - Sapa-AP