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Monday, July 27, 1998 Published at 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK


No end in sight to blazes ravaging Russia's forests

Devastating forest fires - aided by dry weather and strong winds - are continuing to ravage vast areas of Russia's taiga - the deep coniferous forests between the steppes and arctic tundra of the Russian far northeast.

By Sunday morning, hundreds of fires had swept across some 100,000 hectares of tinder-dry land in the Russian Far East, 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.

"Of them, 110 fires are raging in Khabarovsk Territory where they have already covered over 72,000 hectares of the taiga," the agency added.

Attempts to contain the blazes 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.

"Only 45 fires in an area of 8,600 hectares have been contained over the past 24 hours," ITAR-TASS reported on Sunday .

The spread of the fires has been dramatic and rapid: on Tuesday 21st July over 100 fires were raging across 33,000 hectares of forest in Khabarovsk Territory, according to the independent TV channel NTV.

On Thursday 23rd July, ITAR-TASS reported that 42,000 hectares of Khabarovsk's taiga was ablaze.

By Friday 24th July, the figure had risen to 60,000 hectares.

The impact of the fires on life in Khabarovsk was described by NTV in its evening bulletin on 21st July: local airports 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 live here," NTV added.

No human victims of the Far East forest fires have been reported yet, but ITAR TASS noted on 24th July that fires "have directly approached some settlements, with a mere 15 kilometres separating some of them from the blaze".

Meanwhile, many thousands of miles away in Russia's southwest, forest fires have turned Volgograd Region into a "disaster area", ITAR-TASS news agency 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.

Moscow's `Kommersant Daily' newspaper on Tuesday 21st July described the intense efforts to contain one major blaze in the Frolovskiy area of Volgograd Region.

"Some 336 pieces of equipment were involved in putting out the fire.

A special Russian Emergencies Ministry Il-76 aircraft came from Moscow and dropped 294 tonnes of water on the burning forests.

Around 6,000 hectares of forest were destroyed.

It took an Emergencies Ministry aircraft dropping hundreds of tonnes of water from the air to put out the fire," the newspaper said.

As for the future, firefighters in the Far East are banking on a break in the dry weather which is fuelling the blazes, but ITAR-TASS sounded a cautious note: "Specialists believe that if the situation does not change, forest fires may keep raging till winter comes with snowfalls.

So far, weather forecasts are not encouraging."

BBC Monitoring (http://www.monitor.bbc.co.uk), 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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