Volunteers in desperate struggle against Russian wildfires

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Sweat dripping down his ash-blackened face, Yury Samodorov has fought day and night in a desperate struggle to save his home from the summer wildfires ravaging Russia.

With authorities overwhelmed by the worst wildfires to hit Russia in a generation, Samodorov is among dozens of young volunteers working to quench the flames in Somovo on the outskirts of Voronezh, a city 600 kilometres (375 miles) southwest of Moscow in one of the regions worst-hit by the fires.

"We've been in the forest since Thursday trying to save it," Samodorov said as he shovelled piles of earth in a bid to prevent the outbreak of fresh blazes.

"We're scared, otherwise we wouldn't be here. Our homes are there, in the forest," he said.

Coordinating their efforts on Internet forums, about 150 young volunteers working in 30-strong brigades have been flocking to the forest every day to help extinguish the fires.

"We've come to help. We've come to save our homes... We've been here day and night," said one of the volunteers, Alexei Manukovsky.

The volunteers are surrounded by the devastation the fires have wreaked since breaking out on Thursday. The forest around Somovo has been reduced to blackened undergrowth and charred trees, and the smoke from the fires and intolerable heat made it difficult to breathe.

"We have masks but it doesn't help," said 22-year-old volunteer Olga Nichayeva, though for the most part the "masks" were little more than scarves wrapped around faces.

At times the struggle seems futile.

"We put out the start of a fire here, and another starts somewhere else. It's without end. There is no rain and the average temperature is 35 degrees," Samodorov said.

Local firefighters from Russia's emergencies ministry "don't have enough manpower or resources. They need help," 22-year-old volunteer Dmitry Glebov said.

"If we weren't here, (homes in the forest) would have burned a long time ago," Manukovsky added.

Firefighters have only "two planes and a helicopter," Samodorov said. "The ministry is working above and we are working below."

About 400 homes have burned in the Voronezh region since the fires started and three people have died in the flames, including a rescuer with the emergencies ministry.

Across Russia, 34 people have been killed as a result of the fires and at least 1,875 houses have been destroyed, with around about 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of land on fire.

Amid unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to spreading fires last week, the emergencies ministry has deployed hundreds of thousands of workers along with 2,000 members of the armed forces to fight the disaster.

With no end to the wildfires in sight, despairing residents on Sunday pleaded for divine intervention, with about a hundred people marching in a procession through Voronezh to a small church, praying for "the gift of rain."

© 2010 AFP

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