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Hundreds of new wildfires break out in Russia

world Updated: Aug 02, 2010 08:55 IST

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Hundreds of new fires broke out on Sunday in Russian forests and fields that have been dried to a crisp by drought and record heat, but firefighters claimed success in bringing some of the wildfires raging around cities under control. The firefighters got much-needed help from residents desperate to save their homes, who shoveled sand onto the flames and carted water in large plastic bottles.

The wildfires that began threatening much of western Russia last week have killed 28 people and destroyed or damaged 77 towns or villages, the Emergencies Ministry said. Thousands of people have been evacuated from areas in the path of flames, but no deaths have been recorded since late Wednesday.

Troops and volunteers have joined tens of thousands of firefighters in combating the fires, which blazed just outside Moscow and in several provinces east and south of the capital. The region around Voronezh, a city of 850,000 people about 300 miles (475 kilometers) south of Moscow, has been one of the worst hit. Half of the 300 homes in the village of Maslovka were reduced to cinders.

Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Chernova said fires in the Voronezh region were under control Sunday and no longer threatened any population centers.

But woodlands on the edge of the city, about a mile (1.5 kilometers) from some houses, continued to burn. Firefighters sprayed water from hoses and dumped it from the air onto the blaze, while local residents pitched in on the ground.

Some 320 new fires broke out Sunday, but 210 were extinguished, the Emergencies Ministry said, while the total territory ablaze shrank by thousands of acres (hectares) to about 316,000 acres (128,000). No homes were damaged by fire during the weekend, it said.

Fires have devastated the regions around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's fifth-largest city, and the city of Ryazan, just southeast of Moscow. They also were moving into regions farther to the east such as Mordovia and Tatarstan.

Smokey air has settled over cities, already baking in the heat, and many residents complain of headaches and intestinal ailments. In Moscow, the smog has come mainly from fires in dried-up peat bogs in outlying regions. The peat, which is high in carbon, can ignite and smolder underground, giving off dangerous fumes.

Much of western and central Russia is suffering through a severe drought, thought to be the worst since 1972, in what has been the hottest summer since record-keeping began 130 years ago. This year's harvest was already in trouble, and the fires have finished off vast fields of golden wheat and other crops.

Temperatures have topped 95 degrees (35 Celsius) for much of the past three weeks, with an all-time high of close to 100 degrees (38 Celsius) recorded in Moscow last week.

Emergency officials said the heat and drought were the main cause of the fires, but they also blamed human carelessness and urged people to use extreme caution when walking or driving in the woods or countryside.

"Any source of fire, including a cigarette thrown from a car window, will ignite the dried grass," the emergency services said in a statement.