Heat, winds fan Russia wildfire emergency

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Ferocious temperatures and shifting winds hampered efforts Tuesday by Russian firefighters to douse hundreds of wildfires in a national disaster that has already claimed at least 40 lives.

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared a state of emergency in seven Russian regions over the fires which have left tens of thousands of hectares of land ablaze and uprooted hundreds from their homes.

Officials said firefighters were succeeding in extinguishing hundreds of fires each day but 300-400 new blazes were appearing every 24 hours, creating a Herculean task for the emergency services.

"The very hot weather is continuing and this creates very unfavourable conditions. This is the main thing hindering us at the moment," Vladimir Stepanov, head of the emergency ministry's crisis centre, told reporters.

"Work is going on day and 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."

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

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.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu told Medvedev in a meeting that his workers had succeeded in preventing fires from extending to 360 inhabited areas in the last 24 hours, news agencies reported.

The health ministry said Monday that 40 people had died in the fires which 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 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 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.

Medvedev had the day earlier declared the state of emergency in seven regions in European Russia -- Mairi El, Mordovia, Vladimir, Voronezh, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Ryazan.

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.

The head of Russia's nuclear agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, visited the town of Sarov in the Nizhny Novgorod region where Russia's main nuclear research centre is located to ensure the facility was untouched by the fires.

The Interfax news agency said hundreds of emergency workers were on standby to fight the flames in the region but the situation was now under control.

© 2010 AFP

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