Russia begins to localize fires, others rage as country wilts in hottest summer on record

By Mikhail Metzel, AP
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Russia begins to localize fires, others rage

VORONEZH, Russia — Russia’s armed forces mobilized Saturday to fight hundreds of wildfires that have wiped out villages and vast areas of woodland. Officials said the worst blazes were under control, but evacuations continued.

All 300 of the army’s fire trucks have been dispatched to help fight blazes across at least 14 of the country’s 83 regions, including outside Moscow, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said on television.

The fires have killed at least 30 people in the last three days, officials said, and they are occurring as Moscow and other regions of the country are suffering their hottest summer since records began 130 years ago.

The Emergencies Ministry said in a website statement that “the situation with fires … is under control” due to preventative measures being taken. But state television reported that in some regions up to 20 new fires were being registered every day. More than 10,000 firefighters were among the almost 250,000 people involved in tackling the fires in all, officials said.

In the industrial city of Togliatti, in central Russia, 2,000 children were evacuated from a summer camp as a state of emergency was declared, the state ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Nationwide, fire has destroyed 1,200 homes — thought to be mostly provincial village dwellings — said Yelena Chernova, an Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman.

Thousands of people have been forced to flee as blazes left their houses in smoldering ruins and filled the air with smog and ash.

The Voronezh and Nizhny Novgorod provinces the worst affected, Rossiya-24 TV reported.

An Associated Press reporter in Voronezh city, which has 850,000 people and is 300 miles (475 kilometers) south of Moscow, saw half a village reduced to ash and stunned locals sifting through the dust for possessions to salvage. Residents pooled what little food they had — mainly potatoes and carrots — to ensure no one starved.

Fires that encircled Voronezh city earlier this week were not visible Saturday, as officials reported they had been brought under control. However, thick plumes of smoke from distant blazes were drifting into the city center, where hotels housed some of the newly created refugees.

Five people, including one firefighter, were killed by wildfires in Voronezh, and six residents and a firefighter died when a fire swept through the village of Mokhovoye in the Moscow region. The other deaths occurred in the Nizhny Novgorod, Ryazan and Lipetsk regions, all south or east of Moscow.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday visited Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village in the Nizhny Novgorod region where all 341 homes were burned to the ground and five residents were killed. He promised residents 200,000 rubles ($6,600) each in compensation.

The village, one of three hamlets destroyed around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city 300 miles (475 kilometers) east of Moscow, looked like a ghost town coated in gray ash.

The region’s governor, Valery Shantsev, said in televised remarks Saturday that the situation there remained grave because thick smoke was preventing aerial dousing of the flames.

The Kremlin on Friday mobilized the army to help as fires raged over 214,136 acres (87,000 hectares) of woodland and peat bog.

Associated Press writer David Nowak contributed to this report from Moscow.

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