Fires flare up as Russia pledges better forest protection

Forest fires flared again in  Russia on Wednesday as President Dmitry Medvedev demanded better  protection for the country’s prized forests to avoid a repeat of this summer’s disaster.

Fresh fires destroyed more than 400 houses in the Siberian region  of Altai, officials said, as flames spread across the region’s border  with the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

“The village of Nikolayevka has been entirely taken by the flames.  According to preliminary information, 433 houses burned down,” emergency  ministry spokeswoman Irina Andryanova was quoted as saying by Interfax  news agency.

All 1,000 residents of the village were safely evacuated, the  spokeswoman said.

An evacuation was underway in the village of Bastan, where flames  had already destroyed four houses, she said.

“Three fires from Kazakhstan are heading towards the regions of Altai and Novosibirsk,” RIA Novosti quoted a local emegency official in Altai as saying.

Authorities were sending fire-fighting aircraft — two planes and  four helicopters — to help extinguish the flames, which at one stage  were covering 11 kilometres (seven miles) in a single hour, emergencies ministry spokeswoman Olesya Kukuyeva told AFP.

One person died trying to put out the fire in Kazakhstan’s  Pavlodar region, an official with the country’s emergencies ministry  told AFP.

The fresh fire outbreak comes after Russia battled hundreds of  blazes earlier this year, some dangerously close to its top nuclear  research centre in Sarov.

Environmentalists last month accused the authorities of  intentionally under-reporting the scale of the disaster, saying the  fires had cost the country 300 billion dollars (381 billion euros),  citing estimates based on the market value of timber and the cost of  reforestation.

Environmental groups including WWF and Greenpeace said the fires  wreaked damage on such a colossal scale due to forestry legislation and reforms passed since the start of Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency when he introduced a new Forest Code.