Two thousand troops fight forest fires in Russia heatwave

31st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of firefighters, including army troops, battled hundreds of forest fires that raged across central Russia in the worst heatwave for decades, destroying houses and killing more than 30 people.

More than 2,000 troops have been sent in to help firefighters, a defence ministry spokeswoman told ITAR-TASS news agency on Saturday.

A total of more than 16,000 firefighters are battling the flames, along with 56 helicopters and planes, the emergency ministry said Saturday.

Four hundred fires were still burning over more than 120,000 hectares on Saturday morning, while 387 fires had been extinguished in the last day, the ministry said in a statement.

In the Nizhny Novgorod region, one of the worst hit, firefighters struggled to quench flames amid strong winds, with 11 separate fires still burning on Saturday, the ministry said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday visited the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya in the region where more than 300 houses were destroyed by the fires, leaving more than 500 people homeless, and was confronted by tearful residents.

"By winter, all the houses will be standing. I promise you that your village will be restored," Putin pledged, as residents circled round him in a televised encounter.

He also promised to give each person 200,000 rubles (6,614 dollars) in compensation for their lost possessions.

Putin allocated five billion rubles (165 million dollars) to rebuild houses and said he would personally control the process, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies on Friday.

Three bodies were found Saturday in burnt-out houses in the district visited by Putin, the regional emergency ministry told the Interfax news agency, raising the toll from nine to 12.

Officials had reported deaths of 29 people in fires on Friday, although the emergency ministry did not give a toll for the whole of central Russia.

The defence ministry allocated 550 troops, including a tank regiment, to help the firefighting in the region, the emergency ministry said.

Temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius are predicted for the Voronezh region on Saturday, where more than 500 people have been left homeless by fires raging in the suburbs of the regional capital and television reports showed the city shrouded in smoke.

A television report showed residents returned to scrape through the ashes of their burnt-out homes, with some carrying out jars of pickles that survived the flames in cellars.

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 Celsius, the hottest recorded in the city since records began.

As people cool off by taking dips in lakes and rivers, many of them without life-saving equipment, Russia has also seen a high death toll from drownings.

Thirty-five people drowned on Friday alone, the emergency ministry said.

© 2010 AFP

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