Death toll rises to 40 as Russians battle fires

Death toll rises to 40 as Russians battle fires

Russian firefighters continued to battle thousands of forest and peat fires on Monday as the death toll climbed in the worst natural disaster the country has seen in decades, dpa reported.

   Hundreds of thousands were in action battling the 7,000 fires of varying size burning across 500,000 hectares of the vast nation, said the head of national emergency centre, Vladimir Stepanov.

   Official counts showed the death toll had climbed to 40, while hundreds of people have been injured and thousands rendered homeless as entire villages were burned to the ground.

   On Monday, rescue workers recovered five bodies from the ruins of a house which burned down in the worst-hit region of Nizhny Novgorod. In Lenkovo, a village near Moscow, two children were burned to death.

   In both Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometres east of the capital, Russian soldiers had begun to lay down water pipelines to help in the battle against the fires.

   State radio reported that some of the blazes were just 10 kilometres away from Moscow, while others were encroaching on Voronesh, a city of 840,000 some 500 kilometres to the south.

   Extra relief workers were drafted into the Zarow region of Nizhny Novgorod to provide added protection for a nuclear research centre.

   Parts of the capital was shrouded in haze, while clouds of black smoke from the fires in the European part of Russia were clearly visible on satellite photos.

President Dmitry Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven regions hit by the wildfires, giving local authorities greater powers to deal with the disaster.

   Medvedev said he was beefing up the 2,000 soldiers helping the around 240,000 civil defence workers. Emergency Situations Minister Sergej Shoigu said eight water-dropping planes would be deployed.

   The extreme heat and dry spell - the worst in more than 130 years - is believed to have triggered the initial outbreak last week, but arsonists have been blamed for some of the more recent blazes.

   Authorities reported the first arrests Monday of arsonists and looters. In one case a group of men was detained for stealing building material from an abandoned village.

   Others face prosecution for submitting multiple claims for one-off compensation payments to people who have lost their possessions.

   The drought had already destroyed much of the summer harvest and now the flames have added to the damage, which experts estimate at billions of roubles.

   Prime Minister Vladimir Putin held an emergency meeting in Moscow with the governors of the regions worst affected, urging them to come up with a reconstruction plan.

   Officials have been accused of negligence in dealing with the disaster and failing to build fire-protection ditches in time.

   "It'll take at least five years before the nature can regenerate itself 50 per cent," one forestry expert told the news agency Interfax, saying he was "staggered" at how much land had been destroyed.

   Meteorologists were warning that no relief was in sight, with temperatures in Moscow expected to go beyond 40 degrees Celsius by the end of the week.

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