MASLOVKA, Russia (Reuters) - Wildfires sweeping across European Russia killed at least 25 people on Friday and forced the evacuation of thousands in the hottest weather since records began 130 years ago.
Fanned by strong winds, fires ripped through woods and fields that have been scorched for weeks by a heatwave, incinerating hundreds of wooden houses.
“We don’t know where to go,” said Galina Shibanova, 52, standing outside her burning home in the town of Maslovka in the Voronezh region, about 500 km (300 miles) south of Moscow.
“We called the emergency services, and not one person answered the phone,” said Shibanova, a gold crucifix around her neck reflecting the nearby flames.
Igor Vlasnev, head of the Voronezh region fire services, told Reuters the situation was expected to worsen on Saturday because of rising temperatures.
“Everyone is waiting, and wishing, for rain,” he said. “The forecast for tomorrow is that the situation will worsen both in terms of temperature and wind conditions, which are expected to change (on Saturday) after 7:00 p.m. (1500 GMT).” Russia has been sweltering since June in a heatwave that has destroyed crops and pushed thousands of farmers to the verge of bankruptcy.
Drought in some regions of Russia, one of the world’s biggest wheat exporters, has sent global prices soaring to year highs, putting U.S. wheat futures on track for their biggest monthly gain since 1973.
The emergencies ministry said 240,000 people have been deployed to fighting peat and forest fires across 866 square km, an area about the size of Berlin.
The Emergencies Ministry said that as of Friday evening a total of 1,257 private houses had burned down in European parts of Russia, leading to the evacuation of more than 3,000 people.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin canceled meetings in Moscow to fly to the Nizhny Novgorod region, where at least 540 homes were destroyed. He ordered his government to allocate 5 billion rubles ($165 million) to help victims.
State television showed a crowd of women surrounding Putin, demanding to know if the government would pay for rebuilding their homes. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” said Putin. “I promise you the village will be fully rebuilt.”
One woman said: “We are very thankful to you.” Putin embraced her and kissed her on the cheek.
In Voronezh, locals said government help arrived too late.
“As far as I am concerned, you should put the entire emergency service in jail,” said Andrei Milovanov, 47, as he took a break from shoveling sand over smoldering tree trunks. “They should have come here two days ago.”
He was working alongside a dozen other people from the village of Otroshka near the city of Voronezh. He said all of them were unemployed. President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the military to help fight the fires and Putin warned that officials who failed to deal properly with the fires would be sacked.
“This is a calamity and could strike other regions,” Medvedev told officials by video conference from Moscow.
Residents in Nizhny Novgorod had tried to fight the flames with buckets of water but state television channel Rossiya said 340 houses in one village were destroyed in 20 minutes.
One woman sat weeping in an armchair, surrounded by toys, as her house burned down in front of her, a Reuters witness said. Another sat on a bench clutching religious icons saved from her burning home.
A spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry said 25 people had died in the fires, including two firefighters.
Those evacuated included 900 patients from a hospital in Voronezh that was threatened by the flames and 1,200 children from summer camps in Ryazan, the ministry said.
In Maslovka, Alexandra Yuryeva stood in front of her burned-out house in shock, clutching a brown chicken tightly to her chest, the only possession she had left. “In my childhood there was the war, it’s impossible, why can I not die in peace?” the 71-year-old said, as tears streamed down her face.
Adding to Russia’s weather related woes, a hurricane caused by the sudden advent of a cold front ravaged parts of the northwestern Leningrad region on Friday night, killing at least seven people, an Emergencies Ministry official told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Ludmila Danilova in Moscow; Writing by Conor Humphries, Guy Faulconbridge and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Maria Golovnina