Russia struggles against spreading wildfires

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Russia struggled Thursday to contain the worst wildfires in its modern history that have killed 50 people, with the blazes spreading to the country's south and raising concerns about radiation levels.

With the severest heatwave in Russia in decades impacting areas as diverse as sales of anti-pollution masks and agricultural yields, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dramatically banned grain exports until December 31.

"We have seen over the last 24 hours a decrease in the number of fires but not so much that we can rejoice," Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a news conference.

Shoigu expressed alarm that the situation was worsening in the south -- so far spared the worst of the fires -- including Rostov which is not one of the seven Russian regions where a state of emergency has been declared.

"Today, the situation has been getting worse in the Rostov region and we can note a movement of the fires towards the south," he said.

Shoigu said the emergency services were working flat out to prevent the fires spreading to a region in western Russia where the soils are still contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe of 1986 in neighbouring Ukraine.

"We are painstakingly controlling the situation in the Bryansk region. If a fire appears there, the radioactive particles could fly away with the smoke and a new polluted area could appear."

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.

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

Officials have lashed out at weekend picnickers who exacerbated the situation by leaving burning campfires which 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 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 military base fire.

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.

The thick smog from the wildfires that has pervaded Moscow and raised alarm over public health lifted somewhat Thursday. However, pharmacists reported huge sales of protective masks.

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.

The heatwave has also destroyed 10 million hectares of Russia's arable land and 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.

© 2010 AFP

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