Wildfires rage as heatwave scorches Russia

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Russia's worst heatwave for decades shows no sign of relenting, officials warned Tuesday, as firefighters battled hundreds of wildfires in a national disaster that has claimed at least 40 lives.

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared a state of emergency in seven Russian regions over the fires which have left tens of thousands of hectares of land ablaze and uprooted hundreds from their homes.

Officials said firefighters were succeeding in extinguishing hundreds of fires each day but 300-400 new blazes were appearing every 24 hours, creating a herculean tasks for the emergency services.

"The very hot weather is continuing and this creates very unfavourable conditions. This is the main thing hindering us at the moment," Vladimir Stepanov, head of the emergency ministry's crisis centre, told reporters.

"Work is going on day and and night. It is a real battle," he told reporters.

He said shifting winds were complicating the situation further: "The situation is changing in every region. It changes several times in the course of the day."

The emergencies ministry has employed dozens of water-bombing jets to douse the flames, dumping thousands of tonnes of water daily in a bid to halt the blazes.

Over 500 fires were still raging in Russia over an area of 170,000 hectares after more than 300 new fires broke out over the last day, Russian news agencies quoted the emergencies ministry as saying.

It said that over 150,000 members of the emergency services and 56 aircraft were engaged in firefighting. The health ministry said Monday that 40 people had died in the fires.

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

Forecasters warned the record temperatures were going to continue in the coming days, with no rain forecast and the mercury expected to hit 38 degrees Celsius in Moscow this week.

The most badly hit regions have been the countryside around Moscow and other regions in European Russia with the worst affected the Nizhny Novgorod region east of the capital where up to 20 people have lost their lives.

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

The decree allows the authorities to restrict public access to areas where their presence could pose a fire hazard, and to call on the armed forces to put out and prevent fires, according to a summary posted on the Kremlin website.

There has been unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to the spreading fires last week and officials are now making high-profile efforts to show they are in control of the situation.

The head of Russia's nuclear agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, visited the town of Sarov in the Nizhny Novgorod region where Russia's main nuclear research centre is located to ensure the facility was untouched by the fires.

The Interfax news agency said hundreds of emergency workers were on standby to fight the flames in the region but the situation was now under control.

Russian strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had found himself harangued by angry victims of the fires last week when he visited the Nizhny Novgorod region and later slammed local officials for their slack response.

© 2010 AFP

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