Russia in losing battle against spreading wildfires

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Russia waged a losing battle Thursday to contain the worst wildfires in its modern history that have killed 50, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin banned grain exports due to the drought.

New fires were appearing faster than the emergency services could put out the old ones as the total affected area nationwide increased by around 7,000 hectares to 196,000 hectares (482,000 acres), the emergencies ministry said.

"In the last day, the situation in Russia, in particularly in the Volga and central regions, had remained complicated," said the head of the ministry's crisis centre Vladimir Stepanov.

The death toll rose to 50 after a corpse was found in a burned-down house in the Nizhny Novgorod region and another victim died in hospital in the Voronezh region, the ministry said.

"In the course of the last 24 hours, 373 fires have appeared and 254 have been extinguished. As a result there are now 589 wildfires burning in Russia covering an area of 196,000 hectares," it said.

According to the ministry, 162,000 emergency workers have been deployed to douse the flames, which have now been raging in the affected area in central Russia for a week.

Officials have lashed out at weekend picnickers who considerably exacerbated the situation by leaving campfires burning which then turned into major blazes. But there has been no suggestion of deliberate arson.

With the situation escalating, Medvedev warned Russia's top two naval commanders and sacked a number of high-ranking officers for failing to prevent a wildfire spreading to a military base last week.

Fires in the countryside had ripped through a naval logistics base southeast of Moscow, destroying the staff headquarters, financial department, 13 warehouses containing aeronautical equipment and 17 storage areas containing vehicles.

The investigative committee of prosecutors said Thursday that it had opened a criminal inquiry into "major damage through negligence" over the spreading of the fire to the military base.

The authorities have deployed thousands of workers to prevent an even greater calamity as wildfires raged within a few kilometres (miles) of the country's top secret nuclear research facility in Sarov, a city closed to foreigners.

Officials said all dangerous nuclear materials had been moved away. "The situation is under control," the Interfax news agency quoted an official as saying.

Moscow had throughout Wednesday been hit by a thick smog from the wildfires that experts warned was dangerous for the health of the public but the situation had eased Thursday morning with visibility sharply improved.

However, there was no sign yet of the heatwave abating, with temperatures again forecast to hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Moscow Thursday and the hot weather expected to last at least another five days, forecasters said.

The heatwave has also destroyed 10 million hectares of Russia's arable land and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced Thursday a ban until December 31 on Russian grain exports to avoid pressure on domestic prices.

"In connection with the unusually high temperatures and the drought, I consider it right to impose a temporary ban on the export from Russia of grain and other products produced from grain," Putin told a government meeting.

"We must not allow an increase in domestic prices and must preserve the headcount of our cattle," said Putin in comments broadcast on state television.

The local education authorities said there were no plans as yet to postpone the start of the school year, as had been mooted by some officials.

The Russian tabloids meanwhile excitedly reported that the hot weather meant that jellyfish were now being found in the Moscow River, a major event in an area unused to such exotic species.

© 2010 AFP

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