Forest fires rage in Russia's Far East, Siberia

MOSCOW Sun May 22, 2011 5:15am EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Fires are spreading fast across vast Siberian forests in a reminder of last year's worst drought on record which killed dozens of people and forced Russia to suspend grain exports.

The Emergency Ministry said on Sunday on its web site www.mchs.gov.ru that around 100,000 hectares of forestry was caught up in fires, mainly in the Far East as well as in the oil-rich Siberian province of Khanty-Mansiysk and nearby areas.

The European part of Russia, the country's agricultural hinterland, remained largely unaffected but the authorities say the situation may worsen as dry weather persists.

During a record heatwave last summer, Russian authorities struggled to contain peat and forest fires that destroyed a quarter of the country's crops, killed dozens of people and engulfed Moscow in a cloud of hazardous acrid smoke.

Hundreds are thought to have died from the scorching heat last year, but Russia's top forecaster has said he did not expect the extreme drought to be repeated this year.

Last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered officials to prevent a repeat of last year's devastating wildfires as environmentalists warned of another disaster.

Estimates for the European Union's wheat harvest are shrinking by the day, with analysts cutting crop forecasts again last week as plants wilted in a months-long drought that looks set to continue for a while.

Russia's official forecast for this year's crop is 85-90 million tonnes compared to some 61 million tonnes in 2010, 97 million in 2009 and 108 million in 2008.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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