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40 now dead as wildfires blacken swaths of Russia

Associated Press / August 3, 2010

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MOSCOW — The death toll from wildfires raging across central and western Russia rose to 40 yesterday, as millions of Muscovites coughed through a haze of smoke from burning peat bogs and firefighters scrambled to put out hundreds of new blazes.

In all, wildfires were reported in 17 of Russia’s regions. President Dmitry Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven of the regions, including the area that surrounds but does not include Moscow.

The fires follow weeks of searing heat and practically no rain. Although temperatures in the Moscow area dipped modestly over the weekend, they are forecast to climb back to around 100 degrees this week. Still, firefighters reported making some headway against the blazes that have destroyed hundreds of homes, burned through vast sections of tinder-dry land, and forced thousands to evacuate.

Vladimir Stepanov, head of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry’s crisis center, said yesterday that about 500 new wildfires were sparked nationwide in the previous 24 hours but most of them were immediately doused.

Muscovites awoke yesterday to a sharp burning smell from the smoldering peat bogs south and east of the capital, haze that has increased the city’s already-high pollution readings.

Wildfires were still burning across some 300,000 acres, mostly in central and western Russia, slightly less than the area engulfed in flames over the weekend, Stepanov said.

About 1,500 homes have been destroyed. Regional Development Minister Viktor Basargin estimated the cost of fire damage at more than $210 million.

The Health Ministry said 40 people have died in the fires, 19 of them in the Nizhny Novgorod region 250 miles east of Moscow.

In a separate development, a twin-engine passenger plane crashed early today near a northern Siberia town, killing at least 11 of the 15 people on board, Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said. The plane was approaching the airport of the town of Igarka, above the Arctic Circle, said Irinia Andryanova, a ministry spokeswoman.

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