Thousands fight forest fires in Russia heatwave

31st July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of thousands of firefighters, including army troops, on Saturday battled forest fires raging across central Russia in the worst heatwave for decades, destroying houses and killing more than 30 people.

A total of 238,000 firefighters are battling the flames in 14 regions, along with 226 aircraft, the emergency ministry said Saturday, calling the situation under control.

More than 2,000 troops have been sent in to back up firefighters in the drought-ridden regions, a defence ministry spokeswoman told ITAR-TASS news agency on Saturday.

President Dmitry Medvedev called the fires "a natural disaster," in televised comments to Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on Saturday, speaking in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

"Unfortunately the forces of the emergency ministry, its regional capabilities, are not sufficient because this is really a natural disaster that happens probably only once every 30 or 40 years," Medvedev said.

Serdyukov said that defence ministry fire-fighting units were working "to their full extent," but admitted that the armed forces were struggling to secure their own military bases.

"Some of our own installations are also in quite a difficult situation," Serdyukov said. "Unfortunately we were fighting fires yesterday and the day before."

The emergency ministry said Saturday that it had the situation under control, however.

"Despite the unpromising weather forecast, the task force we have created and preventive measures we have taken, as well as the active use of emergency ministry aircraft allow us to control the situation," it said in a statement.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday visited the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya in the Nizhny Novgorod region, one of the worst hit, where more than 300 houses were destroyed by the fires, leaving more than 500 people homeless.

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

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.

Finance minister Alexei Kudrin estimated Saturday that the cost of rebuilding and compensating victims would be higher, however, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

"So far the damage is estimated at 5 billion rubles. This will be sent to concrete regions to provide housing, financial compensation for the victims' loss of property," Kudrin said. "But probably the costs will be higher."

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 number of deaths reported to 31, including three firemen.

The emergency ministry did not give a toll for the whole of Russia.

In the Moscow region, a television report showed residents of the village of Mokhovoye, where six have died in fires and several others are missing, searching through ashes of their houses.

"I had a good insulated garage, a banya, a cellar. What can I say? It has all burnt down," a middle-aged male resident told NTV television, as thick white smoke hung over a wasteland of burnt tree stumps and brick foundations.

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.

Temperatures are forecast to hit 40 degrees celsius in the next few days in several central Russian regions, with the emergency ministry warning of an "extreme risk" of more forest fires.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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