MOSCOW, Aug 2, 2010 (AFP) - President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday 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.
|A Russian woman stands near the remains of her burnt out home in Voronezh on August 2, 2010. AFP|
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 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 Monday 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 Sunday, with around 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of land on fire.
On Monday alone, 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 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 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.
Moscow itself was again blanketed Monday in a heavy smog generated from peat fires burning in the countryside, with the city centre permeated by a smell of smoke and the tops of skyscrapers invisible in the early morning.
Shoigu lashed out at residents for creating the conditions for fires with barbecues and camp fires during their weekend leisure activities.
"People need to understand... all the rules if they go into the forest. Our coming week of work depends on how they spent their days off."
Putin, who has led the response to the disaster and visited some of the affected areas, issued stern instructions at a meeting with governors of the worst hit regions.
"I want plans of reconstruction for every region, every district, every house," he said. "I want a list of all the injured signed by you -- the governors," he added.
The strongman, rarely criticised in Russia, found himself harangued by angry victims of the fires when he visited the Nizhny Novgorod region and later slammed local officials for their slack response.
A country notorious for its bitterly cold winters, Russia is enduring its severest heatwave for decades which has seen all-time temperature records tumble throughout July.
Forecasters have warned there is no chance of the heatwave relenting for the moment, with temperatures of between 35-42 degrees Celsius (95-107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) expected in Moscow and central Russia over the next days.