Some of the devastating wildfires sweeping western Russia are out of control, Russia's emergency chief said Tuesday, as fears grew there were not enough firefighters to battle them.
Tens of thousands of troops and volunteers were helping some 10,000 firefighters battle blazes in more than a dozen western Russian provinces, seven of which were under a state of emergency. Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday evening there were 246 fires burning on a total of 121,000 hectares (310,000 acres).
Earlier, Russian media quoted Shoigu as saying the intense efforts against the fires had saved more than 300 towns and villages from destruction in the last day.
"But in some places it is getting out of control," Shoigu was quoted as telling President Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting near the southern city of Sochi; the reports did not elaborate on the number or location of fires considered out of control.
40 people killed
The blazes, coming after weeks of record-breaking heat and practically no rainfall, have killed 40 people and destroyed nearly 2,000 residences.
The fires also leaped into a military base near Moscow, destroying the headquarters building and 13 buildings containing unspecified aviation equipment, the federal Investigative Committee said Tuesday. The fire at the base was reported by some Russian media last week, but the statement was the first official confirmation.
Shoigu told a televised news conference that "a tense situation" continues in the fight against fires near one of Russia's largest nuclear research facilities, in Sarov some 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Moscow. The head of the national nuclear agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying some 3,000 workers and volunteers were fighting the fire near the center.
The Emergencies Ministry criticized local officials on Tuesday for not doing enough to stem the blazes, despite Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warning earlier that those who did not respond adequately risked losing their jobs.
"Everyone must realize the measure of their responsibility," said Vladimir Stepanov of the head of the ministry's crisis center. Municipal authorities "must mobilize all their forces, not just sit and wait for fire brigades to arrive."
The weather this week will not likely help the effort, as temperatures in Moscow and to the south and east were forecast to reach 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit).
Putin said Tuesday he would personally supervise the reconstruction of fire-ravaged homes via video cameras to be installed at each construction site, and would broadcast the images to the government website.
Putin has promised new housing before winter for those made homeless, as well as 200,000 rubles ($6,700) in compensation.
Putin-backed forest law blamedThe prime minister's promises came as environmentalists and politicians charge that efforts to fight the forest fires have been crippled by a law passed four years ago at the behest of Putin and powerful logging interests.
The Forest Code in 2006, passed on Putin's orders, disbanded a centralized system of forest protection and turned the country's vast forests into a virtual no-man's land.
"There was never such a mess in Russian forests as there is now," said Gennady Gudkov, a deputy from the Just Russia party told Reuters. Gudkov is one of 102 MPs who wrote an open letter to Putin in 2006 asking him to delay the new code.
Environmentalists blame bureaucracy and business lobbies for the faults in the forestry legislation, which they say was aimed at milking the Russian forests for quick profits.
"This law is good for large companies with (close connections to the authorities), enabling them to quickly cut trees, make money and leave," Alexei Yaroshenko, of Greenpeace Russia, told Reuters.
Victims have expressed outrage that more wasn't done ahead of time to repel the advancing infernos.
"It was a nightmare," said Margarita Sholokhova, pacing forlornly near the remains of her home in the village of Kadanok, 90 miles (150 kilometers) southeast of Moscow.
"There were too many fires and not enough firefighters. We stayed in our house until the last possible minute, but the fire came and covered the whole village like a hat," she said.
Four brick walls and a heavy iron stove of her modest provincial house were all that remained after wildfires swept through Kadanok three days ago. Her mother's house next door was also among the dozen homes wiped out in the town, but a dozen others escaped damage.
Trenches are being dug and trees felled around several nuclear facilities, news agencies reported.