The first planeloads of US aid for the Russian wildfire tragedy arrived in Moscow on Saturday as officials said a fire raging close to a top nuclear facility did not risk causing an atomic catastrophe.
Officials said that nationwide the area alight with fires was almost a quarter that of a week ago, although there appeared to be little progress in reducing the size of the blaze close to Russia's main nuclear research centre in Sarov.
Two US Air Force C-130 planes carrying aid for Russia touched down early Saturday at a Moscow airport, followed by a charter flight from California ordered by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, state television and the foreign ministry said.
Two additional C-130 flights were expected in the "next days", the Russian foreign ministry said. Another charter was also due in the coming week.
|A Russian man attempts to put out a blaze some 155 kms south of Moscow in Shatura on August 13.|
"We will always remember this gesture, this arm that was extended to us at a very difficult time," the deputy head of the international department of the Russian emergencies ministry, Valery Shuikov, said at the Vnukovo airport.
According to the US State Department, the total value of the support from Russia's Cold War-era ex-foe is around 4.5 million dollars.
The emergencies ministry said there were still 480 fires in Russia covering an area of 56,000 hectares (138,500 acres), a quarter of the area of almost 200,000 hectares (495,000 acres) reported at the peak of the crisis and down around 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) from Friday.
"At the current moment the situation with the wildfires has improved considerably," said Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu in a statement on the ministry's website.
"The weather has not helped us. Everything has been done by the emergency services, the interior ministry, the defence ministry and volunteers."
Along with Sarov, fires have also raged close to another research centre in the town of Snezhensk and the Mayak nuclear reprocessing site, both in the Urals, but the authorities appear to have controlled those fires.
"There are no threats from the forest fires to potentially dangerous sites. Potentially dangerous sites are reliably protected," said Shoigu.
The head of Russia's Rosatom nuclear agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, told reporters that the fire that has been menacing the Sarov centre, 500 kilometres (310 miles) east of Moscow, for the past two weeks does not risk causing a nuclear disaster.
"We can say today for sure that there is no nuclear risk, no radioactive threat and that there is not even an ecological threat on Sarov territory," Kiriyenko told Russian media.
"We pushed back an attack from the west side two weeks ago. Now the fire is coming from the east... and it continues to burn. Nevertheless, the situation on the eastern side has ceased to be critical," he said.
Kiriyenko said radioactive and explosive materials had been removed a second time from the Sarov centre because of the threat of the flames, which approached the perimetre of the installation on Friday before being brought turned back.
The Mordovia region emergencies ministry said the fire in a neighbouring nature reserve that threatens Sarov, a town still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times, covers 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) and is still not under control.
Thousands of firefighters have been sent to the reserve to put out the flames.
Kiriyenko said that if the winds shift the Sarov centre could come under threat once again from the fires in the nature reserve.
"Until (the fires are) put out there, Sarov remains at risk," he said.
The fires have been sparked by the worst heatwave in Russia's history, which destroyed one-quarter of its crops and last week blanketed Moscow in a toxic smog that has raised major concern for public health.
There have also been fears the fires could stir up particles on land in western Russia still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster but officials have said radiation is normal throughout the country.