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As forest fires approach, Russian city prays for rain

Residents of Voronezh prayed for rain Sunday as devastating forest fires ringed the central Russian city and firefighters hosed down charred houses in a suburb where two died in the flames.

Around one hundred people, most of them elderly women, gathered for prayers in a small church in the southern suburb of Maslovka, where more than 100 houses have been destroyed in the fires sweeping central Russia.

“We came to make the rain fall, to prevent more fires,” said Natalya Treshchalina. “One hundred and forty houses burnt down here. It is terrible.”

The believers then walked in a procession to the site of the fire, carrying crosses and icons, as priests scattered holy water on the ruined houses.

“The rain really must come,” said Natalya Vorodina, a middle-aged resident of the city, which lies some 500 kilometres south of Moscow, saying she came to the prayer ceremony to “support our people.”

Sparked by an unprecedented heatwave with temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius, the fires have killed at least 30 people and left more than 2,000 homeless — 600 of them in the Voronezh region, according to reports.

In Nizhny Novgorod, the region worst-hit by the fires, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, also urged believers Sunday to pray for rain.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised that all the houses destroyed in fires will be rebuilt by October and has allocated five billion rubles to cover the costs.

But one elderly resident of Maslovka, Vera Sakharova, expressed scepticism.

“They have given us nothing, and they won’t give us anything,” she predicted. “I do not know what we are going to do next.”

The firefighters came too late to save the village, she complained.

“We had no help,” she said. “We had to do everything ourselves.”

Firefighters from the emergency ministry on Sunday hosed the charred ruins to prevent the fire taking hold again after flames fanned by strong winds leapt swiftly between houses.

“The grass is very dry and it is hot,” warned firefighter Nikolai Elfimov. “Of course I am afraid of more fires, but we are doing all that we can to stop it happening.”

“All the houses burned up at once,” said another firefighter, Maxim Korolyov. “I did not even realise what was happening.”

“It’s the first time that I have ever fought a fire like this,” Korolyov said, admitting that he and his colleagues lacked practice.

The Voronezh region — an area almost the size of France — has 30 fire stations, each with five fire engines, firefighters said.

In the local fire station, firefighters said they had never faced a fire on this scale.

“I have seen fires, but nothing this big,” said a middle-aged firefighter, Sergei Kondrashev. “Every year there are fires here. This year, because of the weather, this has been on a grander scale.”