Forest fires kill 18 in Russia heatwave

30th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Eighteen people died in forest fires in Russia's worst heatwave in decades, officials said Friday, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited one of the worst hit areas to reassure local residents.

Angry residents of a village in the central Nizhny Novgorod region where all 341 houses burnt down confronted Putin as he visited the area, many wiping tears from their eyes, television reports showed.

"We aren't asking for anything out of this world. We are just asking for a guarantee that we will be able to live here by winter," a woman resident said in footage shown on state Channel One television.

"By winter, all the houses will be standing. I promise you that your village will be restored," said Putin, adding that the standard compensation of 50,000 rubles (1,652 dollars) per household for loss of possessions would be increased to 200,000 rubles (6,614 dollars) per resident.

He then lent forward and embraced the woman.

Putin flew into the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya on Friday morning after more than 500 residents were left homeless by a fire.

In characteristic strongman mode, he was shown facing residents, his sleeves rolled up and meeting with Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu, where he ordered officials "not to get tied up in red tape."

Television reports showed a central street with all the houses razed to brick foundations and evacuated residents sheltering in a children's summer camp.

"I was at home, I couldn't breathe, the houses were burning, and I couldn't see anything," Valentina Britova, an elderly woman in a headscarf, told the Rossiya television channel.

Another resident, Yelena Vitushkina, recalled the evacuation: "The bus drove through the fire on both sides, it was blazing like in the cinema."

President Dmitry Medvedev told the government to take urgent measures to organise the fire-fighting and to make funds available to rebuild the destroyed houses.

The president also ordered the defence ministry to help put out the forest fires, his spokeswoman said.

"The president has ordered the defence ministry to activate all necessary forces and capacities to help extinguish the fires," said spokeswoman Natalya Timakova, quoted by Russian news agencies.

At least two people died in the central Nizhny Novgorod region, according to preliminary information, and 550 houses burnt down, the Investigative Committee of the State Prosecutors' office said.

Five people, including one fireman, died in fires on Thursday in the central Voronezh region and more than 500 were left homeless, the emergency ministry said.

In a village in the Moscow region, a fireman and six residents died in a fire that destroyed all 20 houses, while another fireman was killed in the Lipetsk region, Russian news agencies reported.

A total of three people have died in the Ryazan region, its governor said in televised comments.

The situation is critical for residents of villages in a country where few have comprehensive home insurance and many are dependent on their small-holdings to survive.

"We had a house, a barn, a banya, cattle. It has all burnt up. Where do we go? Where do we find the money to buy a house?" a tearful resident of the central Ryazan region was shown asking on Rossiya television.

Putin promised Friday that the authorities would allocate money to rebuild houses destroyed in the fires based on market rates.

A record-breaking heatwave has seen the agriculture ministry declare emergency situations in 23 regions, with crops blighted by drought on around 10 million hectares of farming land.

In Moscow, smoke from smouldering peat and forest fires swathed skyscrapers with smog this week and Thursday saw temperatures hit 38.2 degrees centigrade (100 degrees Fahrenheit), the hottest in the capital since records began.

© 2010 AFP

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