Buenos Aires smoke blows death and political winds

(dpa) - A dense cloud of smoke from farm-land burnoff has settled over Argentina's capital city, Buenos Aires, clouding sight past 100 metres and causing at least seven accident deaths and the shutting down of roads.
The smoke, coming from prairie fires some 100 kilometres north of the city and apparently started by farmers to stimulate pasture growth, has even drifted across the border into Uruguay to spice up an environmental dispute between the two countries.
Once again, farmers, who provoked political turmoil with their protests against export tariffs some weeks ago, are taking the blame.
Officials said that only favourable climatic conditions - with rain, or 90 per cent humidity - could quench the fire and clear the smoke, and it would take a southern wind to at least drive the smoke off the city.
The National Meteorological Service (SNM) did not have good news, as prevailing northern winds were likely to keep shrouding the city in smoke.
"Technically, we cannot say the fire is under control," national fire management official Sergio Rusak said. "As long as it finds continuous vegetation, it will go on."
An estimated 300 fires have consumed more than 65,000 hectares of land after the fires got out of control amidst a drought.
Starting some 10 days ago, city residents woke up in the middle of the night wondering what was burning. They sniffed around the house, realized the smell came from outside, and went back to sleep.
By Friday, in the centre of the 13-million metropolis, the eye could not see much further than 100 metres, and the smoke no longer lifted by morning, as it had on previous days. Instead, it settled in among the buildings and seeped through the walls.
Several roads and motorways leading to Buenos Aires were closed after smoke-related accidents claimed seven lives in recent days. The metropolitan airport, used mostly for domestic flights, was not operational for incoming flights. Many long-distance buses suspended their service.
One subway line was shut down due to smoke, and even Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had to use a car to get to work because her normal transport, the helicopter, could not operate.
Several schools suspended lessons, and many people were complaining of irritation in their eyes and throats.
Smoke dominated conversation, with jokes and complaints.
"I am sick of the smoke, I cannot stand it any longer," one political commentator complained as he opened his TV programme late Thursday.
Ironically, the smoke reached Uruguay.
Residents of the Argentine province of Entre Rios have long blocked binational bridges to protest against the potential environmental impact on the Argentine town of Gualeguaychu of a paper mill built on the Uruguayan side of the common river.
Now Argentines are getting a dubious revenge by polluting their neighbours as well as themselves.
Conveniently, in a political tug-of-war over agricultural export tariffs that recently led to road blockades by farmers and to food scarcity in urban areas, the government has been quick to blame "irresponsible" farmers for the smoke and all its consequences.
Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti blamed those who put the population at risk and "caused such a disaster" in order to "fatten their cows faster."
Farmers' representatives have admitted that something went wrong this year with what is a common practice to renew pastureland before the winter.
Buenos Aires residents, in the meantime, try to live with the suspicion that such air can hardly be healthy, and get used to the smell of smoke on their clothes and on everything else in the hope that it will be gone some day.

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