By Isabel Gorst and Courtney Weaver
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; 4:16 PM
MOSCOW -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday broke off his vacation and ordered an investigation into the wildfires that have swept across the country, blaming local and military authorities for mismanagement.
Medvedev rushed back to Moscow from his vacation residence in Sochi in southern Russia, and ordered a meeting of senior safety officials, including the minister of defense. He said criminal cases would be opened into officials who had not fulfilled their duties.
The Kremlin has been criticized for failing to prepare for and contain the fires, which have killed 48 people and scorched some 1,885 square kilometers of land. on Wednesday, 520 wildfires were burning around central and western Russia, nine fewer than the day before.
"The situation with forest fires in the country has on the whole stabilised but remains tense and dangerous," said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev's move came as swathes of forest, farmland and peat bogs continued to burn, and the Russian capital was shrouded in increasingly acrid smog.
Fires around the industrial city of Vyksa in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow, sent clouds of choking smoke billowing over farmland and forests, where expanses of charred pine and birch trees could be seen, often still smoldering.
Officials said the smoke was hindering the battle to douse the flames, preventing firefighting aircraft from entering the area.
Valery Shantsev, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, said firefighters were winning the battle, but warned the region would remain at risk until the heat wave and drought abated.
Weather forecasters have warned that temperatures will remain abnormally high for at least 10 more days and that no respite from the drought is in sight.
Shantsev said at least 13 of 18 wildfires in the region had been brought under control as thousands of firefighters, soldiers and volunteers joined the battle to contain the crisis.
Last week 20 people were killed in Nizhny Novgorod as fires swept through three villages driven by high winds, the governor said.
Shantsev denied critics' accusations that local authorities had neglected to prepare for wildfires. "We are not talking about ordinary fires. We did not have the strength or resources to combat such abnormal conditions," he said, referring to the combination of unusually high temperatures, strong winds and prolonged drought.
The fires have destroyed not just villages, forests and farmland but also damaged or threatened strategically sensitive sites. Medvedev on Wednesday fired several senior navy officials whom he said failed to stop a wildfire that last week destroyed 13 hangars loaded with aviation equipment at a naval base outside Moscow.
The defense ministry would be held responsible if a similar incident occurred again, the president warned. "Despite the fact that we asked the defense ministry to help with extinguishing fires to help the civil population, in the majority of cases the ministry cannot [even] protect itself," he said.
The nuclear research centre at Sarov in the Nizhny Novgorod region had also been threatened. But Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Rosatom, the state nuclear agency, said Wednesday fires around the city had been brought under control and nuclear and hazardous materials had been removed from the city.
Gorst reported from Nizhny Novgorod.
-- Financial Times