Desperate villagers fight advancing flames near Moscow

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Armed with just spades and sand from a nearby river, villagers in Zdorovie near Moscow joined firefighters to save their homes from flames engulfing an adjoining forest.

Zdorovie, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Moscow, had been spared from wildfires that enveloped western Russia for two weeks, but on Tuesday the first flames and smoke rose from the neighbouring woods.

The fire surged, spurred by a six-week heatwave that had dried grass and soil, and reached the lower branches of trees to the villagers' horror.

Firefighters, helped by water bombing helicopters and local volunteers, battled to beat back the flames before they crossed the road separating the village from the forest.

"I look there to see if I have to leave or not," Lyubov Kharlamova, 62, said, clutching a religious icon in one hand.

"I pray that all this ends," because "if the fire crosses the road, our houses are doomed."

Spades in hand, Zdorovie locals threw soil and sand as firefighters wielding hoses ridden with holes sprayed water pumped from the local river.

"I am no firefighter but a local, and I help so that my house does not burn," said a man who gave his name as Vadim, stripped to the waist due to searing heat.

Vladimir Solovyov, an emergency ministry employee who also owns a dacha in the village, rushed to help his neighbours.

"I am here as a civilian to help because my house is here. I do not fear so much for it, if it burns, we will restore it, but my family, my children, and other people also live here," he said.

"Luckily we have a river," the 30-year-old added.

Forest fires had already ravaged many villages, two military bases near Moscow and threaten several nuclear installations, as well as killing at least 54 people according to preliminary reports.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday authorities said they were making progress in fighting fires that still covered 174,035 hectares of land.

Russia's emergencies ministry said that over the past 24 hours, 247 new fires had appeared, more than the 239 had been put out, and 557 fires were still raging across the affected region.

The authorities have come under pressure to explain the magnitude of effects of the heatwave, which meteorologists have said is the worst in the 1,000 years of recorded history in Russia.

The heatwave has had a huge impact on all areas of Russian society and economists have warned the record temperatures could have cost the country up to 15 billion dollars and undercut a modest economic revival.

Worst hit has been agriculture, which has seen 10 million hectares of land destroyed.

© 2010 AFP

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