Europe

Russian villagers tell of wildfire misery

A man tries to stop fire near village of Dolginino in Ryazan region, about 100 miles southeast of Moscow, Russia, 4 August 2010
Image caption As temperatures remain high, villages are bracing for more blazes

The fires engulfed the small Russian village of Kadanok before dawn.

Set in a clearing in the midst of a thick forest, it had been just a matter of time before the winds changed direction and started fanning the flames towards the cluster of wooden houses.

As the fires took hold, gas cylinders used in each home for cooking started exploding.

"It took just 20 minutes for a house to burn down," said Alexei, whose family live in the village.

"People only managed to take their passports and other documents; there wasn't time to take anything else."

Located 80 miles (130km) south-east of Moscow, half the village is now in ruins, looking like the site of a ferocious battle.

The scorched metal remains of beds, chairs and sledges, lie in deep piles of warm ash.

The shells of cars provide evidence of the panic, as the flames swept along the street leaving no time for people to find keys so they could drive away.

'Little help'

Stripped down to his waist in the continuing heatwave, Alexei pointed to the sweep of blackened earth which stopped just a few metres from his own family's home.

"The wind changed direction at the last minute," he said.

It is the only reason the house is still standing.

Those whose homes were spared now face the dilemma of whether to stay or join the other villagers who are now being looked after in a nearby town, where they are receiving some government aid.

Lyudmilla Borisovna, a pensioner who has lived in Kadanok for seven years, has decided to stay because her life is here.

But she is well aware of the risk she is taking after seeing how little help they received from the emergency services to save the village earlier this week.

"When my neighbours first tried to call the fire brigade they were told firemen only start work only after six o'clock in the morning", she said.

"But they had not even arrived at seven o'clock."

Image caption Half of Kadanok village is now in ruins

Others in the village described the fire brigade as all but useless, driving around in "ancient trucks".

"Here we do everything ourselves," says Alexei.

As we stood talking, the comparatively calm atmosphere suddenly changed.

The state of permanent grey twilight caused by smoke from fires burning in other parts of the region, had lifted.

The wind was strengthening.

A few minutes earlier visibility had been limited to less than twenty metres and everyone was breathing reluctantly.

'Uncertain fate'

Now we could see the beauty of the surrounding fields and forest, and the air almost felt fresh.

But the strong gusts of wind also re-ignited a series of fires very close to the village, the plumes of smoke multiplying fast.

It made it much easier to understand how fires can surround villages and trap people inside their homes.

This time the remaining houses in Kadanok were spared as the wind died down as quickly as it had risen.

Image caption Villagers say the emergency services have been of little help

Next time they may not be so lucky.

In the absence of a large, well-equipped and well-organised fire-fighting force, hundreds of villages across Russia now face the same uncertain fate as Kadanok.

And it is a very uneven battle: villagers armed with buckets and spades trying to defend wooden houses against fast-moving forest and peat fires.

Even senior fire officers in this region refuse to say whether the villages can be saved.

"I can't make any promises for the future," says Major Alek Betlov, head of the fire safety department.

"This is nature, it's not controllable."

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