A fire raging dangerously close to Russia’s main nuclear research centre has grown in size, officials said Friday, as firefighters battled to cut back hundreds of blazes across the country.
The emergencies ministry said that more than 500 fires covering just under 65,000 hectares of land were still ablaze across Russia, down 15,000 hectares from the day earlier, in a crisis that has already left 54 dead.
Russian has sent thousands of firefighters to a nature reserve near the country’s top nuclear research centre in Sarov, a town still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times, and officials warned a fire was gaining in area.
“The fire which appeared in the eastern part of the nature reserve two days ago after lightning struck a pine tree has grown in size and now presents a certain danger,” the head of the emergencies ministry for the Mordovia region, Major General Vyacheslav Kormilitsyn, said in a statement.
The fire had grown to an area of 1,000 hectares, the local emergencies ministry said in a statement on its website. The fire is in a nature reserve in the district of the village of Popovka, 17 kilometres (10 miles) southeast of Sarov.
“At the current time, efforts are being made to contain the fire within its existing limits and localise it,” Kormilitsyn added, saying that 2,600 people and 200 pieces of equipment were being used to extinguish the blazes.
A second fire in the nature reserve — in the district of the village of Pushta, 21 kilometres (13 miles) southwest of Sarov — is smaller at 200 hectares and has been localised, the ministry added.
After a record heatwave lasting over a month, first significant rain for weeks poured down on Moscow overnight, with lower temperatures up to 32 degrees Celsius were expected later in the day.
Despite signs of public frustration with the authorities, a heavy police presence ensured only a few dozen activists turned out for a protest against the Moscow mayor’s handling of the crisis, several of whom were then arrested.
There was little sign of the smog from the wildfires that had blighted the Russian capital in the last week but new reports emerged accusing the authorities of hiding the true health toll from the heatwave.
Moscow’s top health official has already said the mortality rate had doubled in the heatwave, with hundreds more deaths every day than in usual periods. However the federal authorities have refused to confirm these figures.
The Interfax news agency quoted Moscow doctors as saying they had been forbidden to give “heatstroke” as a cause of death to keep a lid on the statistics.
“We received the order not to use the diagnosis ‘heatstroke’. We are told that the statistics for heatstroke were mounting up,” one doctor told the news agency.
Interfax said the heatwave had also forced Russia to stop producing biometric passports for a week after condensation infiltrated the server at the unit where they are produced when its air conditioning broke down.
Production has now resumed and the database was not damaged, it quoted the federal migration agency as saying.
With the full impact of the drought and fires becoming clear, President Dmitry Medvedev said one quarter of Russia’s crops had been lost and many farms were now on the verge on bankruptcy.
Russia has banned grain exports and US government slashed its 2010-11 global supply forecasts by around 2.5 percent from last month’s estimates, on lower than expected production from the former Soviet Union.
As the authorities fight the blazes around Sarov, there have also been fears the fires could stir up particles on land in western Russia still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Fires have also blazed in neighbouring Ukraine, with the emergency services working to put out a two-hectare (five-acre) peat bog fire 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Chernobyl.
But the authorities have said the situation is under control and are urging people not to panic.