Russia battles wildfires as death toll rises

Russian firefighters on Monday battled to prevent the worst summer wildfires in a generation from claiming more lives and property as 34 people were confirmed dead in five days of devastating blazes.

Amid unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to spreading fires last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin held an emergency meeting with governors of the worst affected regions.

Emergency situations have been declared in a dozen of Russia’s regions, with the deadliest fires hitting Nizhny Novgorod east of Moscow, and the Moscow and Voronezh regions also badly affected.

“According to current information, 34 people have been killed as a result of the fires,” Vladimir Stepanov, the head of national centre for crisis management at the Emergencies Ministry, said on state television.

The previous death toll was 30. The increase came after the discovery of more bodies around the Nizhny Novgorod region, the worst-hit area where 19 people have been confirmed dead.

“In the last 24 hours the general dynamic is that the general number of fires is decreasing,” Stepanov added.

“The main task for us today [Monday] — not allowing fires appearing in inhabited areas and preventing the deaths of people — has been fulfilled.”

The Emergencies Ministry has deployed hundreds of thousands of workers along with 2 000 members of the armed forces to fight a disaster described by President Dmitry Medvedev as one that happens only “every 30 or 40 years”.

At least 1 875 houses have been destroyed in fires, leaving more than 2 000 people homeless, the Regional Development Ministry said on Sunday, with about 128 000ha of land on fire.

But the authorities have insisted they have the situation under control and Stepanov said 265 inhabited areas were “saved” from fires over the past 24 hours.

He said that on average 300 fires appeared every day but 95% of them were extinguished within a 24-hour period.

The Nizhny Novgorod branch of the emergency services said the fires were no longer spreading from the countryside to inhabited areas and the threat to towns and villages had been lifted.

Moscow itself was again blanketed on Monday in a heavy smog generated from peat fires burning in the countryside, with the city centre permeated by a smell of smoke and the tops of skyscrapers invisible in the early morning.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu lashed out at people for creating the conditions for fires with barbecues and camp fires during their weekend leisure activities.

“People need to understand … all the rules if they go into the forest. Our coming week of work depends on how they spent their days off.”

Putin, who has led the response to the disaster and visited some of the affected areas, held talks with regional governors in what could prove to be a prickly meeting.

The strongman, rarely criticised in Russia, found himself harangued by angry victims of the fires when he visited the Nizhny Novogorod region and later himself slammed local officials for their slack response.

“The federal government showed it was not ready to fight the fires. The local authorities, with their small budgets, also could not cope,” said the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

A country notorious for its bitterly cold winters, Russia is enduring its most severe heatwave for decades, which has seen all-time temperature records tumble throughout July.

Forecasters have warned there is no chance of the heatwave relenting for the moment, with temperatures between 35 and 42 degrees Celsius expected in Moscow and central Russia over the next days. — AFP

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Stuart Williams
Stuart Williams
Correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP). Previously Frankfurt, Paris, Nicosia, Tehran, Moscow and Istanbul.

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