Russian wildfires threaten shelter housing dogs, circus animals as death toll reaches 50

By David Nowak, AP
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Russian fires toll hits 50, animal home in danger

PLOTAVA, Russia — Wildfires were raging close to a shelter housing hundreds of dogs and retired circus animals, animal activists said Thursday, as the death toll from weeks of blazes across Russia rose to 50.

Rescuers pulled a body out from a provincial village gutted by wildfires and another person died of their injuries overnight, the Emergencies Ministry said. Almost 600 separate fires were still raging, mostly in western Russia, as the country endured its hottest summer on record.

The director of the animal shelter, in the village of Khoteichi, 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Moscow, said he and volunteers had already extinguished a fire that came within 150 yards (150 meters) and were bracing for more blazes. The shelter is home to more than 1,800 animals, mainly dogs, but also bears, monkeys, foxes and tortoises.

“With the speed of fire, we don’t know if we can save them all,” Sergei Serdyuk said of the animals.

Nearby fire stations did not answer calls when Tuesday’s blaze advanced — one official hung up as soon as he heard the word fire, said Serdyuk, who added he has spent the last days dousing trees with water and digging trenches.

Thick smog that had blanketed Moscow partially lifted early Thursday but could return with no end in sight to a record heat wave, officials warned.

Temperatures up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) have exacerbated forest and peat bog fires across Russia’s central and western regions, destroying close to 2,000 homes. Officials have suggested the 10,000 firefighters battling the blazes aren’t enough. The forecast for the week ahead shows little change in the capital and surrounding regions, where the average summer temperature is around 23 Celsius (75 Fahrenheit).

The body was found in a village near Russia’s fifth-largest city, Nizhny Novgorod, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) east of Moscow and the hospital death occurred near Voronezh, southeast of Moscow. Those regions are among the worst-hit.

In the blaze-ravaged village of Plotava, some 35 miles (60 kilometers) east of Moscow, local official Viktor Sorokin lamented that the number of fire wardens in woodland and peat bog areas had halved to 150 the last few years under new rules.

“There used to be more of them, now there aren’t enough,” he said.

Some locals are taking the initiative to make up the shortfall in firefighters.

“We woke up several days ago and we couldn’t breathe,” said Alexander Babayev, a 27-year-old owner of a drive-in theater, before taking a hose to low rising flames flickering above the smoldering ground.

Babayev assembled a motley team of volunteers using a social networking website and, after a few instructions from professionals, they began tending to fires.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised to build new, better homes before winter, and vowed each victim would receive $6,600 in compensation. The sum is huge in a country whose average monthly wage is around $800, and Russian media say some residents may have deliberately torched their dwellings to qualify.

To the east, firefighters focused on beating flames back from a top-secret nuclear research facility in the city of Sarov. A Sarov news website on Thursday cited local officials as saying a wall of fire had been broken down into several smaller blazes. On Wednesday, officials said the closest blaze was still several miles (kilometers) from the main facilities at the Russian Federal Nuclear Research Center and as a precaution all hazardous materials had been evacuated.

In the capital, President Dmitry Medvedev fired several high-ranking military officials Wednesday over what he called criminal negligence in fires that ravaged a military base.

Russia has been sent helicopters and planes to help douse the flames from Ukraine, Armenia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised comments.


Associated Press writers Khristina Narizhnaya and David Nowak contributed to this report.

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