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Monday, July 27, 1998 Published at 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK

Forest fires: a burning issue in Russia

Forest fires have spread to 100,000 hectares in eastern Russia

Devastating forest fires - fuelled by dry weather and strong winds - are continuing to ravage vast areas of Russia's taiga, the deep coniferous forests between the steppes and the arctic tundra of north-east Russia.

By Sunday morning, hundreds of fires had swept across some 100,000 hectares of tinder-dry land, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Regional authorities logged 153 fires, from Khabarovsk Territory north of the Chinese border, to Sakhalin island north of Japan and the Kamchatka peninsula, on the shores of the Bering Sea.

The spread of the fires has been dramatic. In Khabarovsk Territory, the area affected by the blaze more than doubled within a week, and the fires now cover over 72,000 hectares of the taiga.

[ image: Russian firefighters must also tackle underfunding]
Russian firefighters must also tackle underfunding
Attempts to contain the blaze were "futile" owing to a shortage of money to fund firefighting efforts, dry weather and the remoteness of many of the fires, raging deep within forests and away from water sources, ITAR-TASS reported.

"Only 45 fires in an area of 8,600 hectares have been contained over the past 24 hours," the agency said.

According to independent TV channel, NTV, local airports in Khabarovsk cancelled flights, drivers needed passes to enter the taiga, and smoke descended on residential areas, making it difficult to breathe.

"The fire is already two kilometres from the oil and gas pipeline that links Sakhalin to Komsomolsk-on-Amur," the TV said.

Flora and fauna were also said to be in peril: "The Far East taiga holds cedar forests and yew groves that have not been touched by the woodsman's axe.

"Tigers and Himalayan tigers that have been entered into the Red Book [of protected species] also live here," NTV added.

No human victims of the forest fires have been reported yet, but Itar-Tass said that the blaze had approached some settlements within 10 miles (16 km).

Firefighters hope that a break in the dry weather will help contain the fires, but Itar-Tass says the weather forecasts is not encouraging.

The news agency quoted specialists who believe that if the situation does not change, forest fires may keep raging till winter snowfalls arrive.

Meanwhile, many thousands of miles away, in south western Russia, forest fires have turned Volgograd Region into a "disaster area", Itar-Tass reported on Sunday.

"Police, firefighters, foresters and activists are now patrolling all roads leading into the Volgograd Region's forests around the clock to prevent people from entering areas threatened with fires by the unprecedented arid summer," the agency said.

The decision followed an outbreak of 15 major forest fires and hundreds of smaller blazes in which over 9,000 hectares had gone up in flames.

Volgograd Region's Frolovskiy area was hit by one of the worst fires, which devastated some 6,000 hectares of forest, Moscow's Kommersant Daily newspaper reported.

A special aircraft of the Russian Emergencies Ministry dropped nearly 300 tonnes of water on the burning forests, before the fire could be put out, the paper said.

BBC Monitoring (, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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