More deaths as Russian fires spread
At least 48 people killed as hundreds of fires continue to rage.
Last Modified: 04 Aug 2010 11:16 GMT
Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, visited firefighters battling the blazes [AFP]

The death toll from wildfires that have wiped out forests and villages in western Russia has risen to at least 48, officials have said.

Almost 403 new fires were recorded in the past 24 hours, on top of 520 fires still raging, the emergencies ministry said on Wednesday.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, has declared the situation "tense and dangerous", while Dmitry Medvedev, the president, cut short a holiday to hold emergency talks on the fires.

Ongoing blazes have left a thick blanket of smog covering Moscow, the capital, carrying harmful gases into the city and stinging the eyes and throats of commuters.

Health hazard warnings

Current levels of carbon monoxide in Moscow soared to about 5.7 times safe levels overnight on Wednesday.

Russia's most senior lung doctor has warned residents are inhaling the equivalent of 40 cigarettes every few hours.

"As soon as one fire is put down at least four others rage in different areas."

Neave Barker
Al Jazeera correspondent

Around 170,000 people, including troops, are said to be helping to battle the fires in more than a dozen western Russian provinces.

Around 293 fires have been extinguished over the last 24 hours, "but in some places it is getting out of control," Sergei Shoigu, emergencies minister, said during a briefing with Medvedev.

The president has already imposed a state of emergency in the seven regions worst hit by the fires. The heaviest death toll has been in the Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow.

Meanwhile Putin visited the southern region of Voronezh, another area devastated by the fires.

"The situation with forest fires in the country has on the whole stabilised but remains tense and dangerous," he told a meeting of officials.

The authorities have been particularly concerned by wildfires burning around Sarov in central Russia, the location of the country's top secret nuclear research facility.

Wildfires 'set to continue'

The blazes, coming after weeks of record-breaking heat and no rainfall, have destroyed nearly 2,000 residences and left thousands homeless.

Neave Barker, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Moscow, reported that officials have said they are losing the fight to control some of the fires burning in the west.

"As soon as one fire is put down at least four others rage in different areas."

"The situation doesn’t appear to be getting any better," he said.

The authorities have promised compensation to those who have lost their homes and Putin said he would personally supervise the reconstruction via video cameras to be installed at each construction site.

Environmentalists have criticised the government's response, saying that the safety infrastructure in place can only deal with smaller fires.

They say the situation has only been made worse by a Putin-era change to the law which has ended the country’s centralised fire control system.

Forecasters warned that record temperatures were going to continue in the coming days, with no rain forecast and the mercury expected to hit 38 degrees Celsius in Moscow this week.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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