Death toll climbs as Russia forest fires spread

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the fires "a natural disaster”.

Updated: Aug 01, 2010, 16:10 PM IST

Moscow: Firefighters on Sunday fought an uphill battle against spreading forest fires that have already killed 30 people, destroyed thousands of homes and mobilised hundreds of thousands of emergency workers.

The Emergency Ministry said on Sunday that forest fires had engulfed more than 114,000 hectares across Russia. It mobilised almost 240,000 emergency workers to fight the blazes, along with 2,000 members of the armed forces.

Fires in the sparsely populated Far Eastern region grew three times in size over the last 24 hours, with the remote Kamchatka peninsula being hardest hit, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported on Sunday, citing the region`s forestry department.

The Emergency Situations Ministry gave a death toll of 28 on Saturday, including seven in the Moscow region.

Two more bodies were found on Sunday in a burnt-out village in the Nizhny Novgorod region, the regional Emergency Ministry said, raising the official death toll to 30.

Nizhny Novgorod emergency services said on Sunday that the firefighters had managed to stop fires spreading further overnight.

In the Voronezh region, one of those worst-hit, almost 600 people have been left homeless, Russian television reported, showing residents evacuated to a hotel and bags of clothes brought by volunteers.

Local resident Galina Shibanova told of escaping from her home, where she lived with seven members of her family, and moving to a cramped hotel with 148 other residents.

"It was impossible to go out into the street," Shibanova said in an interview on television. "There was a lot of smoke and the children were choking. We covered their mouths with cloths and handkerchiefs and quickly put them in the car."

"There has never been a fire like this," fireman Maxim Korolyov said in the village of Maslovka, where all but five of the 150 houses burnt down on Friday. "It`s the first time that I have had to fight a fire of this size.

An elderly resident, Vera Sakharova, complained that firefighters had come too late. "We did not have any help," she said. "We had to do everything ourselves."

Sceptical of promises of state help, Sakharova predicted: "They have given us nothing, and they won`t give us anything."

"I don`t know what we are going to do after this," she said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday visited a village in the Nizhny Novgorod region where more than 300 houses burnt down, leaving more than 500 homeless. Angry residents confronted the strongman leader, who promised to rebuild their homes and embraced one tearful woman.

Putin said on television on Saturday that 1,257 houses had burned down across Russia and promised that they would all be rebuilt by October, after allocating a total of five billion roubles (USD 165 million).

Speaking via video link with regional governors, Putin called the situation "extremely tense" and berated officials for their tardy response, saying: "Not everything was done in a timely way, but now is not the time to squabbling”.

In an earlier broadcast from Sochi, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the situation a "natural disaster of the kind that probably only happens every 30 or 40 years”.
The fires unleashed by one of Russia`s worst heatwave have devastated the regions in the centre and the Volga river basin, to the east and southeast of Moscow.

Temperatures were forecast to hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next few days in affected regions, with the Emergency Ministry warning of an "extreme risk" of more forest fires.

Bureau Report