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Death toll rises as Russian wildfires spread

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Drought conditions helping to aid wildfires
  • At least 40 killed in fires
  • About 500 towns and villages placed in a state of emergency
  • Fires covering an area of around 1,071 square kilometers

Voronezh, Russia (CNN) -- Russian emergency services are continuing to battle spreading wildfires over large areas of the west of the country Tuesday as authorities said the death toll had risen to 40.

Russian authorities imposed a state of emergency in about 500 towns and villages on Monday. By Tuesday, fires covered an area of around 1,071 square kilometers (665 square miles), a spokesman for the Russian Emergencies Ministry said according to news agency Itar-Tass.

More than 300 new fires were reported on Tuesday but 247 have been extinguished, the spokesman said. More than 500 fires continue to burn. Regions affected include Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir and Voronezh and the Republic of Mordovia.

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Most of the fires -- among the worst ever to hit the region -- were started accidentally by people burning garbage, dropping cigarettes or failing to extinguish campfires or barbecues properly, Emergency Situations Ministry representative Irina Andrianova said.

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  • Russia
  • Wildfires

Heat and drought have made Russia especially susceptible to wildfires with the country in the grip of a heatwave which has seen Moscow experience the hottest temperatures -- 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) -- since records began in 1879.

High temperatures are expected to continue through the middle of August, with no rain forecast.

One of the worst-affected communities has been Maslovka, near the western city of Voronezh, where the entire population has been evacuated to nearby hotels.

A resident named Nina said she had returned to the village after the fire to sift through the rubble of the house where she was born.

For 50 years, she said, she lived under the same roof. A few days ago, the wildfires were swept by high winds to the village and quickly engulfed her house. Now there is nothing left.

Even the clothes she was wearing were not hers -- they had been given to her by a neighbor.

As Nina told her story, an old lady walked from behind a broken wall, wailing. Nina said the woman was her mother, devastated that she had lost the home where she raised her family.

Russia's government has vowed to compensate the more than 1,870 families whose houses have been burned down. Amid complaints, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered regional governors to speed up the compensation process.

The Kremlin has called the wildfires a natural disaster of the kind that appear every 30 or 40 years.

But critics accuse local authorities of mismanaging the response.

Russia says it has deployed nearly a quarter of a million people to fight the fires. But around Voronezh, many of the firefighters were just volunteers with buckets.

CNN's Matthew Chance contributed to this report.