At least 40 die in Russian wildfires

By Isabel Gorst
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; A07

MOSCOW -- Russia declared a state of emergency in seven regions Monday as the death toll climbed from wildfires sweeping the European part of the country.

The fires have devastated homes, farmland and forests across a huge portion of European Russia, which has been left parched by a prolonged heat wave and drought.

A fifth of Russia's grain crop has been destroyed by lack of rain, prompting a surge in world wheat prices and driving many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy.

At least 40 people have died in the past few days as high winds fanned flames in forests and peat bogs.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree Monday declaring an emergency in the Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Ryazan, Voronezh, Mordovia and Mari El regions, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The decree bars Russians from entering forests and peat bogs at risk of fire until the emergency is lifted. It also calls for recruiting volunteers to help combat the wildfires.

Medvedev urged Russians visiting the countryside to be vigilant. "Much depends on us and on your behavior," he said. "It is difficult in the city, stuffy and very hot. . . . Everyone wants to go out to the country. Remember, any discarded match can bring about an irrevocable disaster. These are not banal words; it is how things are."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called a meeting of regional governors to discuss the crisis. "Every day, several hundred new fires break out including tens of huge ones. We must do everything possible effectively to battle with this dreadful calamity," he said.

The government has allocated about $217 million to compensate and re-house more than 2,000 people who have been left homeless. Construction must begin by next week and be completed before the onset of winter in October, Putin said.

Weather forecasters warned on Monday that there is no hope of respite from the record-breaking heat wave, which has gripped European Russia for more than five weeks.

In Moscow, people donned masks as smog from the burning peat bogs cloaked the city.

Health officials advised children and the elderly to stay at home as pharmacies reported a rush on oxygen canisters used to ease respiratory problems.

Environmentalists have blamed the authorities for not preventing the fires by watering peat bogs, which frequently ignite in hot weather.

Avtovaz, Russia's biggest carmaker, halted assembly lines Monday because forecast temperatures could damage the health of workers.

-- Financial Times

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