Moscow: President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday interrupted his holiday to hold emergency talks on Russia's worst forest fires in modern history as firefighters struggled to contain the crisis.
The area ablaze expanded by several thousand hectares in the past day as hundreds of new fires started in a disaster that has already claimed 48 lives, the Emergencies Ministry said.
With the authorities scrambling to show they are on top of a deteriorating situation, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived on the ground in one of the worst affected areas to supervise firefighting efforts.
Medvedev, who was on his traditional summer break in the southern resort of Sochi, was returning to Moscow to chair an emergency meeting of the national security council on the fire situation.
The President has already imposed a state of emergency in the seven regions worst hit by the fires in European Russia. The heaviest death toll has been in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow.
"The main aim of the meeting is agreeing and adopting additional anti-fire measures for the security of important objects and strengthening their protection," the Interfax news agency quoted the Kremlin as saying.
The authorities have been particularly concerned by wildfires burning around Sarov in central Russia, the location of the country's top secret nuclear research facility and a city still closed to foreigners.
Over 2,000 emergency services personnel were sent to put out the Sarov fires. The head of Russia's nuclear agency Sergei Kiriyenko was supervising the work on the ground and said the situation was under control.
"Nothing is threatening the centre's facilities. There is neither an environmental threat nor the threat of an explosion," he added, according to Interfax.
Officials also for the first time Tuesday confirmed media reports that fires had ripped through a naval logistics base in Kolomna, southeast of Moscow, last week and destroyed office buildings and warehouses and equipment.
The damage was colossal: the staff headquarters, financial department, 13 warehouses containing aeronautical equipment and 17 storage areas containing vehicles were destroyed in the blaze.
The Emergencies Ministry said in a statement that over the past 24 hours 403 new forest fires had been recorded, while 293 fires had been extinguished over the same period.
It said that 520 forest fires were still raging in Russia, covering a total area of 188,525 hectares (465,000 acres). The situation has deteriorated from Tuesday, when the total area was lower at 172,372 hectares.
Eight more bodies were found in burned out houses and "altogether 48 people have been killed" in the fires, it said.
A heavy smog from the wildfires burning in the countryside around Moscow again blanketed the Russian capital with visibility in the city centre was only 300 metres in the early morning.
The tops of the wedding-cake Stalin-era skyscrapers and the golden onion domes of churches invisible from a distance. Visibility was no better than 20 metres in some areas in some of the city outskirts.
Putin was visiting the Voronezh region south of Moscow, one of the worst hit regions where hundreds of homes were destroyed by the fires, and was due to meet emergency services.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have opened a criminal case into negligence over the failure of officials at a national park in the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals to take timely measures to extinguish fires.
The fires have been sparked by Russia's worst heatwave in decades which saw all-time temperature records in Moscow tumble throughout the last month.
However officials have also lashed out at the public for making the situation even worse over the weekend by carelessly leaving campfires burning during their excursions to the countryside.
First Published: Wednesday, August 04, 2010, 16:03