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Planeloads of US aid arrive as Russia cuts back fires

The first planeloads of US aid for the Russian wildfire tragedy arrived in Moscow Saturday, as Russia battled a fire close to a nuclear site but claimed success in cutting the area ablaze nationwide.

Firefighters sought to contain one of the worst remaining fires close to the country’s main nuclear research centre but officials insisted that no strategic object in Russia was at risk from the blazes which have claimed 54 lives.

Two US Air Force C-130 transport planes carrying aid, including water tanks and fire-protective clothing, touched down at Vnukovo airport in the early hours of the morning, television pictures showed.

“We will always remember this gesture, this arm that was extended to us at a very difficult time,” the deputy head of the international department of the Russian emergencies ministry, Valery Shuikov, said at the airport.

The planes are expected to be followed by two more C-130 flights later Saturday as well as a charter flight from the US state of California ordered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to the US State Department, the total value of the US support is around 4.5 million dollars.

The delivery follows a promise by US President Barack Obama to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in a telephone call that Washington was sending firefighting equipment to help Russia.

The emergencies ministry said there were still 480 fires in Russia covering an area of 56,000 hectares (138,500 acres), a quarter of the area of almost 200,000 hectares (495,000 acres) reported at the peak of the crisis and down around 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) from Friday.

“At the current moment the situation with the wildfires has improved considerably,” said Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu in a statement on the ministry’s website.

“The weather has not helped us. Everything has been done by the emergency services, the interior ministry, the defence ministry and volunteers.”

Russia has sent thousands of firefighters to a nature reserve to battle a 1,000 hectare (2,500 acre) fire near the country’s top nuclear research centre in Sarov, a town still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.

The ground-level fire in the district of the village of Popovka, 17 kilometres (10 miles) southeast of Sarov, was unchanged in size from the day earlier, the local Mordovia region emergencies ministry said in a statement.

The Russian authorities said on August 4 that all radioactive materials had been removed from Sarov but some days later announced they had been returned as the danger had passed.

Along with Sarov, fires have also raged close to another research centre in the town of Snezhensk and the Mayak nuclear reprocessing site, both in the Urals, but the authorities appear to have controlled those fires.

“There are no threats from the forest fires to potentially dangerous sites. Potentially dangerous sites are reliably protected,” said Shoigu.

But he also called for additional measures to be taken for warning of and putting out fires around strategically important and potentially dangerous sites in the future, adding that robotic systems would be installed.

The fires have been sparked by the worst heatwave in Russia’s history, which destroyed one quarter of its crops and last week blanketed Moscow in a toxic smog that has raised major concern for public health.

There have also been fears the fires could stir up particles on land in western Russia still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster but officials have said radiation is normal throughout the country.