Wildfires spread in western Russia, kill 28

VORONEZH, Russia (Reuters) - Raging wildfires spread across parts of western Russia on Saturday, engulfing 30 percent more land in just 24 hours, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the situation as very difficult.

At least 28 people have been killed and 3,500 evacuated since the fires broke out in the hottest weather since records began 130 years ago. At least 1,260 houses have been burned down.

The area swept by peat and forest fires rose to more than 1,200 km sq from just over 850 km sq a day earlier, the Emergencies Ministry said.

The ministry said it was getting the situation under control and progress was being made in containing some of the most threatening blazes, but Putin said there were no grounds for optimism.

“In separate regions, where we were hit yesterday and the day before with harsh consequences, the situation has slightly improved,” Putin said in a televised conference with officials from the region and victims of the fires.

“But as a whole, it remains very tense.”

A visibly angry Putin told the regional authorities that more could have been done to reduce the destruction caused by the fires, and ordered the governors to rebuild people’s burned-out homes quickly.

“In all of the affected regions -- let me emphasize -- in all -- it is feasible to restore housing by the end of October,” he told the governors, ordering them also to report to Moscow on Monday afternoon for an emergency meeting.

A state of emergency has been declared in 14 of Russia’s 83 federal districts and 240,000 people have been deployed to fight the fires, media and officials said.

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In villages outside Voronezh, a city some 500 km (300 miles) south of Moscow and not far from the Ukrainian border, Saturday did bring respite and hope for some.

Fires which had blazed since Thursday, leaving nearly 600 people without a roof over their heads, were being subdued on Saturday as strong winds died down.

Firemen were hosing down charred and smoking tree trunks in a resort just outside the city where camp sites stood near gated mansions gutted by fire.

“Whatever could have been burned, has been burned,” one fireman said.

President Dmitry Medvedev has sent the army to help tackle fires in European Russia, where sizzling temperatures around 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) have parched large tracts of farmland, ruining crops and pushing thousands of farmers to the verge of bankruptcy.

The Emergencies Ministry said the most difficult situation was in the Ural, Volga River and Central regions.

Drought in some parts of Russia, one of the world’s biggest wheat exporters, has sent global prices soaring to year highs.

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In Nizhny Novgorod, where at least 540 homes have been destroyed, villages and towns were still under threat from about 60 wildfires ranging in the area, the authorities said.

On Friday, Putin ordered his government to allocate 5 billion roubles ($165 million) for fire victims, giving each of them 200,000 roubles from federal and regional budgets.

In the village of Maslovka, just outside Voronezh and one of the most badly burned places, Nikolai Borisov and Igor Vyushin were sifting through the rubble outside their burned-out homes.

Vyushin, 56, said he had heard they were also to receive 28,000 roubles per square meter of reconstruction work.

“If we receive what has been promised that’s great, but so far we have got nothing,” said Vyushin, sweat streaming down his face beneath a makeshift cap of burned newspaper in the 42 degrees Celsius heat.

Writing by Lidia Kelly, editing by Tim Pearce