Russia

Fires rage in Russia, death toll rises to 48

  • Moscow shrouded in choking smoke, pollution levels soar

* Forest fires rage across area bigger than Greater London

* Kremlin chief returns to Moscow for meeting on fires

* PM Putin visits firefighters in burning region

By Gleb Bryanski

VORONEZH, Russia, Aug 4 (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev broke off his summer holiday on Wednesday and flew back to Moscow for emergency talks as the death toll from Russia's deadliest wildfires in nearly four decades hit 48.

Thick clouds of acrid, choking smoke from forest and peat bog fires blanketed the capital. Authorities told residents to stay indoors despite the sweltering heat to avoid concentrations of toxic carbon monoxide well above safe levels.

Keen to stamp his authority on the government's response to the fires -- so far largely handled by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- Medvedev sacked several senior navy officers for failing to stop forest fires from ravaging a naval storage base outside Moscow last week and destroying valuable equipment.

"Despite the fact that we asked the Defence Ministry to help with extinguishing fires to help the civil population, in the majority of cases the ministry cannot (even) protect itself," Medvedev told officials in the Kremlin after returning from his Black Sea summer residence at Sochi.

The fires have swept through Russia's tinder-dry forests in the hottest summer since records began 130 years ago, leaving thousands homeless and prompting leaders to declare a state of emergency in seven of the worst hit regions.

Critics say the government has been slow to respond. They also allege that changes to the law rammed through parliament by the Kremlin and the timber lobby in 2006 fatally weakened fire protection in Russia's vast woodlands, the world's biggest.

"The situation with forest fires in the country has on the whole stabilised but remains tense and dangerous," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told officials during a visit to the southern region of Voronezh, one of the worst hit.

MONEY PLEDGE SOOTHES

Putin has promised the state will help rebuild all homes destroyed by the fires and has pledged generous compensation.

The prospect of government cash led a group of women to praise Russia's paramount leader when he visited a local hotel housing 155 people whose homes have burned down.

Residents thanked Putin for offering money and asked eagerly for details of compensation schemes, taking pictures of the premier on mobile phones as he spoke with them.

The visit to Voronezh contrasted sharply with a meeting in Nizhny Novgorod last Friday when villagers berated Putin, demanding immediate action to rebuild their homes.

Some 170,000 people including troops were battling at least 520 fires raging on Wednesday over an area of 1,885 sq km, the Emergencies Ministry said.

The wildfires are Russia's deadliest since 1972, when at least 104 people died in Moscow region alone in forest and peat fires that destroyed an area of 100,000 square km of the then Soviet Union, the ministry said.

A record heatwave has engulfed central parts of European Russia since mid June, ruining much of the wheat crop in some areas and raising fears that a poor harvest in the world's third largest wheat exporter could push up global food prices.

The economy showed the first signs of damage from the heatwave, with the services sector expanding in July at its slowest pace in four months.

German carmaker Volkswagen <VOWG_p.DE> said that due to smoke from the fires, it had temporarily halted production at a factory in Kaluga, southwest of Moscow, that produced 48,500 cars last year.

MOSCOW SMOKE

Moscow, a city of 10.5 million, was shrouded in acrid smoke.

"The pollution is at the worst level since 2002 and is approaching those levels," Alexei Popikov, an expert on air quality at Moscow's pollution monitoring agency, told Reuters.

The carbon monoxide count in Moscow soared to 5.7 times safe levels overnight and Russia's top lung doctor warned residents are inhaling the equivalent of 40 cigarettes every few hours.

City dwellers complained of waking with headaches and sore throats. Shops have run out of fans and some residents have taken to wearing masks over their mouths in the street.

The forest fires and scorching temperatures have complicated operations for Russia's large and ageing nuclear sector.

A reactor at the Novovoronezh power station was shut down on Wednesday because transformers broke due to high air temperatures. Other reactors at the station were working normally, state nuclear corporation Rosatom said.

More than 2,100 firefighters were battling fires near a secretive nuclear research centre at Sarov in Nizhny Novgorod province,where the first Soviet atom and hydrogen bombs were designed, about 350 km (220 miles) east of Moscow. (Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Dmitry Solovyov and Toni Vorobyova in Moscow and Jan Schwartz in Hamburg; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Stott; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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