Russia declares emergency in battle to douse fires

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President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday declared a state of emergency in seven Russian regions over the worst wildfires in a generation as firefighters battled to prevent the death toll rising from 34.

Amid unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to spreading fires last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered regional governors at an emergency meeting to present a detailed reconstruction plan.

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

The decree allows local authorities to restrict public access to certain areas where their presence could risk creating the conditions for more fires to start.

It also means that the authorities can call on the armed forces to put out and prevent fires, according to a summary of the decree posted on the Kremlin website.

"Remember that any tossed away match can lead to an irreparable disaster. That is not a banality, that is the way things are," said Medvedev in a televised address.

"Our main task today is to help the victims return to normal life," he added.

The emergencies ministry earlier confirmed that 34 people have been killed in the fires, with the highest death toll -- 19 people -- striking in the Nizhny Novgorod region.

In the latest catastrophe, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said that on Monday wildfires in the southern Lipetsk region destroyed 50 homes after the flames spread to a village in the area due to strong winds.

The emergencies ministry has deployed hundreds of thousands of workers along with 2,000 members of the armed forces to fight a disaster described by Medvedev as one that happens only "every 30 or 40 years."

At least 1,875 houses have been destroyed in fires, leaving more than 2,000 people homeless, the regional development ministry said Sunday, with around 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of land on fire.

But the authorities have insisted they have the situation under control and Stepanov said 265 inhabited areas were "saved" from fires over the past 24 hours.

He said that on average 300 fires appeared every day but 95 percent of them were extinguished within a 24-hour period.

The Nizhny Novgorod branch of the emergency services said the fires were no longer spreading from the countryside to inhabited areas and the threat to towns and villages had been lifted.

Moscow itself was again blanketed Monday in a heavy smog generated from peat fires burning in the countryside, with the city centre permeated by a smell of smoke and the tops of skyscrapers invisible in the early morning.

Shoigu lashed out at people for creating the conditions for fires with barbecues and camp fires during their weekend leisure activities.

"People need to understand... all the rules if they go into the forest. Our coming week of work depends on how they spent their days off."

Putin, who has led the response to the disaster and visited some of the affected areas, issued stern instructions at a meeting with governors of the worst hit regions.

"I want plans of reconstruction for every region, every district, every house," he said. "I want a list of all the injured signed by you -- the governors," he added.

The strongman, rarely criticised in Russia, found himself harangued by angry victims of the fires when he visited the Nizhny Novgorod region and later slammed local officials for their slack response.

"The federal government showed it was not ready to fight the fires. The local authorities, with their small budgets also could not cope," said the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

A country notorious for its bitterly cold winters, Russia is enduring its severest heatwave for decades which has seen all-time temperature records tumble throughout July.

Forecasters have warned there is no chance of the heatwave relenting for the moment, with temperatures for between 35-42 degrees Celsius (95-107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) expected in Moscow and central Russia over the next days.

© 2010 AFP

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