Russia forest fires spread in record heatwave

1st August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Russian firefighters Sunday battled the flames of spreading forest fires that have already killed 30 people, destroyed villages and mobilised hundreds of thousands of emergency workers.

The emergency situations ministry said it deployed almost 240,000 workers to fight the blazes, along with 2,000 members of the armed forces.

The ministry described the situation early Sunday as having "taken a sharp turn for the worse," blaming temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and strong winds. More than 5,000 people had been evacuated from their homes.

Later in the day, ministry spokeswoman Irina Andrianova announced that the situation had "improved considerably" in the last few hours.

"During the day today, fires flared up at 320 sites, and 210 have been put out," she said on Rossia 24 television.

She also said the total area engulfed by the wildfires had been reduced by 7,000 hectares to 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres).

Still, with blistering temperatures forecast over the next few days in affected regions, the ministry has warned of an "extreme risk" of more forest fires.

Two more bodies were discovered Sunday in a burnt-out village in the Nizhny Novgorod region, the emergency ministry's regional branch said, raising the official death toll to 30.

In the Voronezh region, one of those worst-hit, almost 600 people have been left homeless, Russian television reported, showing residents evacuated to a hotel and volunteers bringing bags of clothes.

"There has never been a fire like this," fireman Maxim Korolyov told AFP in the village of Maslovka, where all but five of the 150 houses burnt down on Friday. "It's the first time I have had to fight a fire of this size.

Elderly resident Vera Sakharova complained that firefighters had come too late. "We did not have any help," she told AFP. "We had to do everything ourselves."

Sceptical of promises of state help, Sakharova predicted: "They have given us nothing, and they won't give us anything."

"I don't know what we are going to do after this," she added.

At least 1,875 houses have been destroyed in fires, leaving more than 2,000 people homeless, the regional development ministry said Sunday.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised on television on Saturday that all the houses would be rebuilt by October, after allocating five billion rubles (165 million dollars).

The strongman leader on Friday visited a village in the worst affected Nizhny Novgorod region. In a televised encounter, tearful residents confronted Putin, who promised to rebuild their homes and embraced one of the women.

However, a video posted on YouTube showed Putin being heckled by a crowd of shouting residents.

"You aren't doing anything, everything is burning," one woman can be heard shouting in the footage, which has been viewed more than 30,000 times but was not shown on state television.

"Our administration is working very badly, it needs to be convicted," another woman shouts, as Putin is shown turning and walking away.

On Saturday Putin admitted the situation was "extremely tense" and berated officials for their tardy response, saying: "Not everything was done in a timely way, but now is not the time to squabble."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking from Sochi on Saturday, called the situation a "natural disaster of the kind that probably only happens every 30 or 40 years."

Medvedev did not visit the scene, but is in constant contact with regional governors, his press service told the ITAR-TASS news agency on Sunday.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, on Sunday held a service in the Nizhny Novgorod region and called for believers to pray for rain, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

The fires unleashed by one of Russia's worst heatwaves have devastated regions in the centre and in the Volga river basin, to the east and southeast of Moscow.

© 2010 AFP

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