Russia struggles to quell wildfire emergency

3rd August 2010, Comments 0 comments

Firefighters Tuesday struggled to contain the worst wildfires to hit Russia for decades, as a relentless heatwave and the carelessness of the public sparked hundreds more blazes across the country.

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared a state of emergency in seven Russian regions over the fires which have left tens of thousands of hectares ablaze, uprooted over 3,000 people and killed at least 40.

The emergency services appeared to make few inroads Tuesday, with new fires appearing as quickly as they doused existing blazes. Officials said 300-400 new fires were appearing every 24 hours.

Hundreds of emergency workers were sent into the city of Sarov, the location of Russia's main nuclear research facility, to ensure the top-secret site was not damaged by fires on the city's outskirts.

Vladimir Stepanov, head of the emergency ministry's crisis centre, told reporters that hot weather was the main factor impeding efforts to put out the fires.

"Work is going on day and night. It is a real battle."

He said shifting winds were complicating the situation further: "The situation is changing in every region. It changes several times in the course of the day."

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu told Medvedev that the situation had deteriorated after the weekend due to the careless behaviour of Russians in their leisure activities.

"The weekend has given us a real race. We will put the situation on a more or less acceptable level over the next 2-3 days," he said, adding that 155,000 people were involved in the efforts to douse the fires.

"We hope that by the end of today (Tuesday) the situation will have returned to what it was on Sunday," he added.

"We are in control of the situation but it is in flux. In some places it gets out of control and operative forces have to be moved in."

More than 500 fires were still raging in Russia over an area of 170,000 hectares after more than 300 new fires broke out over the last day, Russian news agencies quoted the emergencies ministry as saying.

Reports said that the situation in Sarov was now under control after the arrival of the emergency services.

The emergencies ministry has employed dozens of water-bombing jets to douse the flames, dumping thousands of tonnes of water daily.

The health ministry said Monday that 40 people had died in the fires since they broke out last week.

A country notorious for its bitterly cold winters, Russia is enduring its severest heatwave for decades which saw all-time temperature records tumble throughout July.

Forecasters warned the record temperatures were going to continue in the coming days, with no rain forecast and the mercury expected to hit 38 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in Moscow this week.

The heatwave has also impacted Russia's agriculture industry, and the agriculture ministry said Tuesday it was cutting its grain harvest forecast by millions of tonnes due to the drought.

The head of weather forecasting centre Gidrometsentr, Dmitry Kiktev, said the heat was being caused by an area of high pressure known as an anti-cyclone that was parked over Russia and would not shift until later in August.

The areas worst hit by the fires have been the countryside around Moscow and other regions in European Russia. The Nizhny Novgorod region east of the capital has seen the worst toll with up to 20 people losing their lives.

There has been unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to the spreading fires last week and officials are now making high-profile efforts to show they are in control of the situation.

In typically idiosyncratic style, Putin announced that he would personally control the research effort through remote cameras which would be installed at every significant reconstruction site.

He said the cameras would broadcast images to the government headquarters, his own house and the government's Internet site.

"Every citizen can thus see in real time what is being done on the ground," he said in comments broadcast on state television.

© 2010 AFP

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