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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cabinet Seeks to Head Off Deadly Kamchatka Winter




VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- As temperatures on the Kamchatka peninsula dipped to 18 degrees below zero Celsius and a fuel shortage had left tens of thousands of families without heat or electricity, Cabinet officials Wednesday arrived in the Far East region with pledges of emergency shipments of oil and money.


A team headed by Sergei Shoigu, head of the Emergency Situations Ministry, arrived Wednesday in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the regional capital of about 200,000 people. Residents who are coping with temperatures inside their apartments of from 5 degrees to 8 degrees Celsius were counting on Shoigu's arrival to turn around a situation the ministry press service characterized as "a direct threat" to the lives of thousands.


"The local administration no longer controls the situation and the population's lives are under threat," was Interfax's paraphrase Wednesday of the press service comment.


"There's no hot water, no electricity, no heat," said Vladimir Yefimov, director of Independent Kamchatka Television Station. "Things are awful."


Attention has focused on Kamchatka in part because its regional parliament last week passed a resolution begging the United Nations for "fuel aid." But Kamchatka isn't the only region in the Far East to face the prospect of a desperate winter. Districts throughout the Far North and Far East have been stranded as the country's economic crisis cut off supplies during the summer months.


Power has been blacked out for hours every day on Sakhalin Island, and Vladivostok, where heating has yet to be turned on, has only two days of heating fuel in reserve. Residents of the Chukotka region, opposite Alaska on the Bering Sea, may have to be evacuated this winter.


In Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, power has been cut off in different city regions for between 14 hours and 21 hours a day, sending temperatures plummeting in homes, schools and offices. Larisa Ponomaryova, an employee at the mayor's office, said her neighborhood had been without electricity 21 hours a day for more than a month. "It is so hard for people with little children," she said.


Kamchatenergo, the regional power company, imports its fuel from South Korea and the United States, and is the only power company in Russia that has its fuel supplied by ocean-going tankers. Now not only has the ruble crisis frightened off importers, but federal and local governments owe Kamchatenergo more than 2 billion rubles ($129 million) for the past nine months, said a spokesman for Kamchatenergo."Our suppliers were afraid that we will never be able to pay, and they stopped delivering fuel here," the spokesman said.


Citizens are left to improvise, and this is creating its own dangers. Itar-Tass reported Wednesday that a couple died in a fire caused by an iron a couple had left turned on during a power outage. A 13-year-old girl also died in a heating-related accident and a number of kerosene lamps and gas cylinders have exploded, causing burns and other injuries, Itar-Tass said.


City residents are also relying more heavily than ever on electric heaters when they can. "The [power] lines are overloaded, and people have been burning cables around them," said the Kamchatenergo spokesman.


Yefimov, the television director, said the authorities have divided


Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky into three districts and switch off electricity in each by turns. But the military, which is the biggest debtor to the Kamchatenergo with debts of $100 million, cannot by law have its power cut off.


"It is the civilian population that is suffering the most," Yefimov said.


In Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak told Russian television that Kamchatka would not freeze. Bulgak said a schedule has been worked out for oil deliveries to Kamchatka until March, and that 3,000 tons of fuel would be immediately allocated from Defense Ministry reserves and sent to Kamchatenergo. But that would only be enough for two days of normal fuel usage, according to Kamchatka local officials.


The federal government earmarked 40 million rubles for Kamchatenergo for emergency supply, but this is enough to buy fuel for just 15 days. Local authorities said they hope Shoigu will help to get more money from Moscow and fuel from local military.


Kamchatka region Governor Vladmir Biryukov is in Moscow trying to restore a tanker line that the Slavneft company had provided, and to which Kamchatenergo owes $146 million.


***Staff writer Simon Saradzhyan contributed to this article.***