Vast sections of Russia are under a state of emergency as more than 10,000 firefighters fought to save villages and forests from being reduced to ash and ember during the country’s hottest summer on record.
At least 25 deaths were reported in the last three days alone and the Kremlin called out the army to help as fires raged over 214,136 acres (87,000 hectares) of woodland and peat bog.
More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been forced to flee as blazes left their houses in smouldering ruins and filled the air with smog and ash.
Weeping women greeted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday as he visited Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village where all 341 homes were burned to the ground and five residents were killed in the blaze.
The village, one of three hamlets destroyed around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city some 300 miles (475 km) east of Moscow, looked like a ghost town coated in gray ash.
“Before winter, each house will be restored,” Putin told the distressed crowd. “I promise – the village will be rebuilt.”
One sobbing woman thanked him for his “serious talk” and promises of 200,000 rubles ($6,500) in compensation for each villager, and Putin kissed her on the cheek.
Officials have declared a state of emergency in 27 of Russia’s 83 regions, with the hardest-hit being the Moscow region – which doesn’t include the city itself – and other areas south and east of the capital, including the Voronezh, Ryazan, Lipetsk and Nizhny Novgorod regions.
In all nearly 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of land have been consumed by wildfires so far this season.
During his tour, Putin urged local officials to step up operations to defeat the fires and asked President Dmitry Medvedev to send troops in to help. Television showed Putin in a birch forest calling Medvedev on a cell phone, then switched to footage of the president taking the call and promising to mobilise the army.
Fires had all but encircled Voronezh, a city of 850,000 people located 300 miles (475 km) south of Moscow. The streets of Voronezh were filled with smog early Friday and a giant wall of rising black smoke could be seen on the horizon. Officials later said they had contained the blaze, and locals said toward the evening the worst of the fires had been extinguished.
Weather experts say as global warming intensifies, Russians unaccustomed to such sweltering heat should brace for more summers like this. The mercury hit 100 (37.8 Celsius) in Moscow on Thursday, setting a new record, and July was the hottest month ever recorded in Russia.
“In 130 years of daily weather monitoring in Moscow, there has never been such a hot summer,” said Alexei Lyakhov, director of Moscow’s Meteorological Service. “This is not normal weather, this has never happened.”
Some 9.6 million hectares (24 million acres) of grain crops – an area the size of Kentucky – have been destroyed by the heat wave, the Agriculture Ministry says.
“Look around: The grass is all dry, everything is dying,” said Irina Zubanova, a student, sitting on a Moscow park bench. “It’s scary, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Five people, including one firefighter, were killed by wildfires in Voronezh, and six residents and a firefighter died when a fire swept through the village of Mokhovoye in the Moscow region. The other deaths were in the Nizhny Novgorod, Ryazan and Lipetsk regions, all south or east of Moscow.
More than 900 patients had to be hurriedly transferred out of a Voronezh hospital on Thursday and nearly 2,000 children were evacuated from 12 summer camps in the path of the flames. Firefighters poured water on the forests from the air to try to contain the inferno.
Forest fires reached Moscow’s western fringe but were extinguished late Thursday. Cooler air from the west brought some respite from the heat Friday and cleared a potentially dangerous smog cloud caused by peat bogs burning east and south of the capital.
The temperatures for July are 14 degrees (8 degrees Celsius) higher than normal, Lyakhov, the Moscow meteorologist said, adding that the heat appeared to be evidence of global warming.
“For the last few years the winters have been warm, so now perhaps a period of hot summers is starting,” he told The Associated Press.
No single hot spell is evidence of global warming, the gradual rise of the Earth’s average temperature over several decades. But climate experts predict that summer heat waves will become more frequent and intense as the world warms, raising the risks of crop damage, wildfires and health problems for the elderly and the sick.
Paul Della-Marta, a climate scientist working at Partner Reinsurance Company in Switzerland, said there has clearly been an increase in heat waves in temperate regions, the heavily populated areas between the polar and tropic regions.
“The evidence indicates that over the last 50 years a lot of the world’s temperate areas have had a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves,” Della-Marta said. “In the future we can expect a continuation of these trends.”
He was the lead author of a 2007 study that showed heat waves in Western Europe had doubled in frequency and nearly tripled in length since 1880.
Della-Marta said many previous hot spells, including a severe 2003 heat wave in Western Europe that killed tens of thousands of mostly elderly people, have been preceded by long periods with little rainfall.
“When soils are very dry, it sets up a climate feedback where the sun’s energy is not being used to evaporate water from the surface but its energy gets transferred to the air, making the air temperature a lot hotter,” he said.
Moscow is not well-equipped in any case to handle heat. Few Russian apartments and offices have air conditioning, and opening windows in the capital this week brought in the smoky smell of burning peat.
Dried up peat bogs are highly flammable and smoulder underground, giving off dangerous fumes. Environmentalists say smog that blanketed Moscow in 2002 from burning peat killed hundreds of people.