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Wildfires force state of emergency for 500 Russian towns

From Matthew Chance and Maxim Tkachenko, CNN
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Wildfires leave destruction in Russia
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hundreds of fires are burning, covering an area the size of 115,000 baseball diamonds
  • Most of the fires were started accidentally, the Emergency Situations Ministry says
  • 34 people are confirmed dead
  • Heat and drought have made Russia vulnerable to fires, and no rain is forecast for weeks

Voronezh, Russia (CNN) -- Russian authorities have imposed a state of emergency around about 500 towns and villages because of wildfires burning across the west of the country, officials said Monday.

Most of the fires -- among the worst ever to hit the region -- were started accidentally by people burning garbage, dropping cigarettes, or failing to extinguish campfires or barbecues properly, Emergency Situations Ministry representative Irina Andrianova said.

Nearly 700 fires are burning, covering about 115,000 hectares, she said. That is nearly 450 square miles. A hectare is about the size of a baseball field or an international rugby pitch.

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  • Russia
  • Wildfires
  • Dmitry Medvedev

Some 34 people have been confirmed dead, Andrianova said. That includes two firefighters, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported over the weekend, citing the emergencies ministry.

Firefighters moved in to protect 86,000 people from the fires, she said.

About 5,000 of those people fled their homes. The rest are from 265 villages and towns that were protected from the blazes by firefighters, but did not have to evacuate, she said.

Heat and drought have made Russia especially susceptible to wildfires, she said. High temperatures are expected to continue through the middle of August, with no rain forecast.

Authorities said Sunday that firefighters were gaining control over the blazes.

"Despite complicated weather conditions, the situation is under control thanks to preventive measures and efforts taken by the Russian Emergencies Ministry," a spokesman for the ministry told the Itar-Tass news agency.

"The most difficult situation with wildfires remains in the Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir and Voronezh regions and the Republic of Mordovia, where fires threaten several populated settlements," the ministry's information department said.

A hot, dry summer has been a key factor in the fires, drying out large parts of land and igniting the peat bogs that lie all over central Russia.

Moscow hit a temperature of 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) on Thursday, the highest temperature since records began in 1879.

In the village of Maslovka, near Voronezh, almost every house in the village of 500 people had burned to the ground.

All the residents of Maslovka had been evacuated to nearby hotels.

A resident of Maslovka named Nina said she had returned to the village after the fire to sift through the rubble of the house where she was born.

For 50 years, she said, she lived under the same roof. A few days ago, the wildfires were swept by high winds to the village and quickly engulfed her house. Now there is nothing left.

Even the clothes she was wearing were not hers -- they had been given to her by a neighbor.

As Nina told her story, an old lady walked from behind a broken wall, wailing. Nina said the woman was her mother, devastated that she had lost the home where she raised her family.

Russia's government has vowed to compensate the more than 1,870 families whose houses have been burned down. Amid complaints, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered regional governors to speed up the compensation process.

The Kremlin has called the wildfires a natural disaster of the kind that appear every 30 or 40 years.

Critics, meanwhile, accuse local authorities of mismanaging the response.

Russia says it has deployed nearly a quarter of a million people to fight the fires. But around Voronezh, many of the firefighters were just volunteers with buckets.

 
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