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Russia mobilizes army to fight fires
214,000 acres ravaged; 25 die
By David Nowak, Associated Press ; ; July 31, 2010
MOSCOW — Vast sections of Russia were under a state of emergency yesterday as more than 10,000 firefighters battled to save villages and forests from being reduced to ash and ember during the country’s hottest summer on record.
At least 25 deaths were reported in the last two days alone and the Kremlin called out the army to help as fires raged more than 214,136 acres of woodland and peat bog.
More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been forced to flee as blazes left their houses in smoldering ruins and filled the air with smog and ash.
Weeping women greeted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he visited Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village where all 341 homes were burned to the ground and five residents were killed in the blaze.
The village, one of three hamlets destroyed around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city some 300 miles east of Moscow, looked like a ghost town coated in gray ash.
“Before winter, each house will be restored,’’ Putin told the distressed crowd. “I promise — the village will be rebuilt.’’ He also promised $6,500 in compensation for each villager.
Officials have declared a state of emergency in 27 of Russia’s 83 regions, with the hardest-hit being the Moscow region — which doesn’t include the city itself — and other areas south and east of the capital, including the Voronezh, Ryazan, Lipetsk, and Nizhny Novgorod regions.
In all nearly 2.5 million acres have been consumed by wildfires so far this season.
During his tour, Putin urged local officials to step up operations to defeat the fires and asked President Dmitry Medvedev to send troops in to help. Television showed Putin in a birch forest calling Medvedev on a cellphone, then switched to footage of the president taking the call and promising to mobilize the army.
Fires had all but encircled Voronezh, a city of 850,000 people located 300 miles south of Moscow. The streets of Voronezh were filled with smog early Friday and a giant wall of rising black smoke could be seen on the horizon. Later, the worst of the fires were extinguished.
Weather scientists say that as global warming intensifies, Russians unaccustomed to such sweltering heat should brace for more summers like this. The mercury hit 100 in Moscow on Thursday, setting a new record, and July was the hottest month ever recorded in Russia.
“In 130 years of daily weather monitoring in Moscow, there has never been such a hot summer,’’ said Alexei Lyakhov, director of Moscow’s Meteorological Service. “This is not normal weather, this has never happened.’’
Some 24 million acres of grain crops — an area the size of Kentucky — have been destroyed by the heat wave, the Agriculture Ministry says.
Five people, including a firefighter, were killed by wildfires in Voronezh, and six residents and a firefighter died when a fire swept through the village of Mokhovoye in the Moscow region. The other deaths were in the Nizhny Novgorod, Ryazan, and Lipetsk regions, all south or east of Moscow.
Forest fires reached Moscow’s western fringe but were extinguished late Thursday. Cooler air from the west brought some respite from the heat yesterday and cleared a potentially dangerous smog cloud caused by peat bogs burning near the capital.
No single hot spell is evidence of global warming, the gradual rise of the earth’s average temperature over several decades. But climate researchers predict that summer heat waves will become more frequent and intense as the world warms, raising the risks of crop damage, wildfires, and health problems for the elderly and the sick.
Paul Della-Marta, a climate scientist working at Partner Reinsurance Company in Switzerland, said there has clearly been an increase in heat waves in temperate regions.
“The evidence indicates that over the last 50 years a lot of the world’s temperate areas have had a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves,’’ Della-Marta said. “In the future we can expect a continuation of these trends.’’ ;