Hundreds of fires continue to burn in Russia, but situation around Moscow improves

By David Nowak, AP
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fire situation improves around Moscow

MOSCOW — The number of wildfires in the Moscow region fell sharply overnight, but hundreds of blazes continued to rage in other areas of Russia, and officials warned Saturday that some of them are in hard-to-reach regions.

Authorities hope they are witnessing signs of improvement after weeks of ferocious wildfires across central and western Russia, which have killed more than 50 people and displaced hundreds amid the worst heat wave on record.

Heavy downpours cooled Moscow this week after days of choking smog from the fires shrouded the city, prompting residents and tourists to put on face masks just to venture outside.

Officials have warned winds could bring the smog back to the city, and while Moscow was clear on Saturday a burning smell lurked in the air.

The Emergencies Ministry said in a statement Saturday that “the situation in the Moscow region has significantly improved,” with the number of fires there falling by half to 16 overnight. But it also said 480 fires continued to burn elsewhere in the country, down from more than 500 on Friday.

Vladimir Stepanov, who heads the Emergencies Ministry’s crisis response center, said in televised comments that the central regions of Nizhny Novgorod and Ryazan were still in jeopardy as winds fanned the blazes.

Russia has been battling the fires for nearly three weeks. They have destroyed provincial towns and villages, and together with the drought have cost Russia a third of its wheat crop.

A new wildfire has started east of a nuclear research facility in Sarov, 300 miles (480 kilometers) east of Moscow. The blaze spread quickly, prompting firefighters in the region to call in reinforcements from neighboring areas, according to the region’s emergency headquarters.

State television on Saturday showed officials near Sarov complaining they could not gauge the size of the fire because thick smoke prevented aerial swoops and smoldering ground prevented firefighters from getting close to the flames.

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