Putin visits Russian village destroyed by forest fires, death toll from blazes up to 20

By Mansur Mirovalev, AP
Friday, July 30, 2010

20 dead as forest fires rage across Russia

MOSCOW — Forest fires raged across Russia on Friday, destroying villages, surrounding one southern city and killing at least 20 people, including three firefighters, officials said.

The fires have spread quickly across more than 200,000 acres (90,000 hectares) in recent days after a record heat wave and severe drought that has plagued Russia for weeks. Fields and forests have dried up, and much of this year’s wheat harvest has been ruined.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday visited the smoldering ruins of Verkhnyaya Vereya, where all 341 houses were burned to the ground and two resident died in the blaze. The village was one of three destroyed around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city located 300 miles (475 kilometers) east of Moscow.

“Before winter, each house will be restored,” Putin told a crowd of distressed villagers, most of them women. “I promise — the village will be rebuilt.”

One weeping woman thanked him for his “serious talk” and promises of compensation of 200,000 rubles ($6,500) for each villager, and Putin kissed her on the cheek.

The fires in the Voronezh, Nizhny Novogorod and Moscow regions have destroyed more than 1,000 houses and left more than 2,000 people homeless, according to the country’s Emergencies Ministry. Fires also were raging in 11 other regions in central and southern Russia.

Fires have all but encircled Voronezh, a city of 850,000 people, some 300 miles (475 kilometers) south of Moscow. The streets of Voronezh were filled with smog Friday and a giant wall of rising black smoke could be seen on the horizon, television footage showed.

More than 900 patients had to be hurriedly transferred out of a Voronezh hospital on Thursday and nearly 2,000 children were evacuated from 12 summer camps in the path of the flames.

Firefighters trying to contain the blaze were pouring water on the forests from the air, emergencies services spokeswoman Olga Izvekova said.

At least 20 people have died in the past two days from the forest fires, according to officials. The toll includes five people, including one firefighter, in Voronezh, and six residents and a firefighter who died when a fire swept through the Mokhovoye village in the Moscow region on Thursday evening. The other deaths were in the Nizhny Novgorod and Lipetsk regions.

Forest fires on Moscow’s outskirts reached the city’s western fringe on Thursday, but were extinguished toward nightfall. A cold front moving in from the west brought some respite from the heat Friday and cleared a potentially dangerous smog cloud caused by peat bogs burning east and south of the capital.

July has been the hottest in Moscow in 130 years of recorded history. The mercury hit 100 (37.8 Celsius) in Moscow on Thursday, setting a new record. A high of 90 (32 Celsius) is forecast for Friday.

Few Russian apartments and offices have air conditioning, and opening windows in Moscow in recent days has brought in the smoky smell of burning peat. Dried up peat bogs are highly flammable and smolder underground, giving off dangerous fumes.

Environmentalists say smog that blanketed Moscow in 2002 from burning peat killed hundreds of people.

Putin on Friday urged local officials to step up their emergency operations to defeat the fires.

“The situation in these regions deteriorated yesterday, we need to take some urgent steps,” Putin said at a televised meeting.

He also said local officials who had failed to stop the fires in their regions should resign.

Prosecutors will “thoroughly investigate and evaluate each official,” he said.

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