Russian wildfire death toll rises

Dmitry Medvedev declares a state of emergency in seven Russian regions over the worst wildfires in a generation as the death toll rose to 40.

The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has declared a state of emergency in seven Russian regions over the worst wildfires in a generation as the death toll rose to 40. Amid unusual public criticism that the authorities were slow to react to the spreading fires last week, prime minister Vladimir Putin ordered regional governors at an urgent meeting to present a detailed reconstruction plan. Mr Medvedev declared the emergency in seven regions in European Russia - Mairi El, Mordovia, Vladimir, Voronezh, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Ryazan. The decree allows the authorities to restrict public access to areas where their presence could pose a fire hazard, and to call on the armed forces to put out and prevent fires, according to a summary posted on the Kremlin website. "Remember that any tossed away match can lead to an irreparable disaster. That is the way things are," said Mr Medvedev in a televised address. "Our main task today is to help the victims return to normal life," he added. Putin also raised the possibility of calling in volunteers to reinforce the firefighters. "Everyone and all our equipment are working to the limit ... if necessary, we could mobilise volunteers and personnel from businesses," he said. The health ministry said yesterday that 40 people had died in the fires, raising the toll from 34. The worst hit region has been Nizhny Novgorod with 19 deaths, but raging fires have also claimed lives in the Voronezh, Lipetsk, Moscow and Ryazan regions, the ministry added. Russia's Orthdox Patriarch Kirill I led a ceremony broadcast on television from Nizhny Novgorod, in which crowds of faithful prayed for rain. At least 1,875 houses have been destroyed in fires, leaving more than 2,000 people homeless, the regional development ministry said on Sunday, with about 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of land on fire. On Monday alone, the emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu said that wildfires in the southern Lipetsk region destroyed 50 homes after strong winds sent flames ripping through a village. The emergencies ministry said that it had 155,000 people and more than 25,000 pieces of equipment on hand to fight what Mr Medvedev has described as a once-in-a-generation catastrophe. But the authorities have insisted they have the situation under control. "Out of 1,200 fires, 620 have been extinguished, leaving 580" still burning, said Mr Shoigu. The Nizhny Novgorod branch of the emergency services said the fires were no longer spreading from the countryside to inhabited areas and the threat to towns and villages had been lifted. Forecasters have warned there is no chance of the heatwave relenting for the moment, with temperatures of between 35-42 degrees Celsius expected in Moscow and central Russia over the next days. * AFP