Fires flare up as Russia pledges better forest protection

8th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Forest fires flared again in Russia on Wednesday as President Dmitry Medvedev demanded better protection for the country's prized forests to avoid a repeat of this summer's disaster.

Fresh fires destroyed 50 houses in the Siberian region of Altai, officials said, as flames spread across the region's border with the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

The homes were destroyed in the village of Nikolayevka, a spokeswoman for the regional branch of the emergencies ministry told AFP.

"People are being evacuated," said the spokeswoman, Olesya Kukuyeva, adding that no-one was hurt.

The fire was spreading fast, covering 11 kilometres (seven miles) in a single hour, added another spokeswoman for the emergencies ministry.

Three other villages in the Altai region were also under threat and authorities were sending fire-fighting aircraft -- two planes and four helicopters -- to help extinguish the flames, the spokeswoman told AFP.

One person died trying to put out the fire in Kazakhstan's Pavlodar region, an official with the country's emergencies ministry told AFP.

The fresh fire outbreak comes after Russia this summer battled hundreds of blazes, some dangerously close to its top nuclear research centre in Sarov in central Russia.

Environmentalists last month accused the authorities of intentionally under-reporting the scale of the disaster, saying the fires have cost the country 300 billion dollars, citing estimates based on the market value of timber and the cost of reforestation.

Environmental groups including WWF and Greenpeace said the fires wreaked damage on such a colossal scale due to forestry legislation and reforms passed since the start of Vladimir Putin's 2000-2008 presidency when he introduced a new Forest Code.

Those reforms turned Russia's prized forests into a virtual no-man's land, environmentalists said, as they led to the sacking of some 150,000 forestry officials, including forest rangers.

The Kremlin appeared to have taken notice of at least some of those complaints as President Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday that a billion hectares of forest land had been left without state protection and tasked officials with amending the Forest Code.

"The past summer has shown that the current legislation and forest management are not up to the mark," the Kremlin said in a statement.

This summer Russia endured an unprecedented heatwave when raging wildfires and burning peat bogs around Moscow choked the capital for days.

Around 500 forestry officials in the Moscow region were fired just before the fires broke out in the region, a spokeswoman for the region's Public Chamber, Maria Yelanova, told AFP on Wednesday.

© 2010 AFP

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