Russian villagers pick up pieces after deadly fires

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The fire came silently and without warning, ripping across the dry fields around the central Russian village of Maslovka and enveloping homes before residents could react.

Standing outside the smouldering wreckage of her home Saturday, a resident hunting for remains of her family's possessions said the flames tore through the house in moments.

"The house burned down in one minute, we barely had time to get the children out," said the woman, who did not give her name.

Only five of the 150 homes in Maslovka, near the city of Vorenzh, 600 kilometres (370 miles) southeast of Moscow, escaped the fire on Friday, one of a string of blazes across central Russia that have left at least 30 dead.

The forest fires were triggered by an unprecedented heatwave that has gripped the region, with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Farenheit) turning trees and grass into tinder.

In a field outside Maslovka, an AFP photographer witnessed fire moving rapidly across a parched grass field, the flames darting forward with the slightest breath of wind.

Dazed inhabitants picked silently through the remains of their homes, desperately trying to salvage something from the wreckage as they seek to rebuild their lives before winter comes.

The town's hospitals are packed, the air heavy with acrid smoke.

Authorities have promised rapid compensation payments of 100,000 rubles (2,600 euros) for people who have lost their homes, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday promised that all homes would be rebuilt by the end of October.

But one resident complaned that fields in the area had burned for several days without anything being done.

"Why do the authorities behave like that," he asked.

Local officials have come in for heavy criticism from Putin for their lack of preparedness.

"Nothing was done on time or as it should have been, but now is not the time to settle scores," Putin was quoted as saying by Russian media Saturday.

Three people have been killed in the Vorenzh region in the last two days and 400 homes destroyed, according to the Emergency Ministry.

© 2010 AFP

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