World

Raging Russian fires force evacuations, destroy homes as record heat wave spikes

MOSCOW (AP) — Raging forest fires encircled a southern Russian city and tore through provincial villages Thursday, forcing mass evacuations as Moscow suffered through a record, weeks-long heat wave and smog cloud caused by peat-bog fires.

Some 212,506 acres (86,000 hectares) were burning nationwide, and flames all but encircled the city of Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow. Forest fires on Moscow's outskirts reached the city's western fringe, in the Krylatskoye district, but were extinguished toward nightfall.

State television pictures showed the evacuation by ambulance of a Voronezh city hospital. Channel One said more than 800 patients were transferred to other facilities as flames approached the city's outskirts and thick smoke lowered visibility. Hundreds of children were evacuated from at least seven summer camps, according to the regional Emergencies Ministry website.

Distraught locals were shown next to their burning homes, with one elderly man peering into the camera and asking "Where are we to live now?" Over his head, plumes of thick black smoke sailed toward the city center. There, the few locals on the streets were shown holding handkerchiefs to their mouths, and stooping to cough.

Hundreds of homes in surrounding villages burned to the ground, the ministry said. The Interfax news agency reported that the 340 homes were destroyed in a village near Nizhny Novgorod, around 250 miles east of Moscow.

There were no reports of casualties.

Hot summers are usual even in Russia's more northern climes, where temperatures routinely reach the mid-80s. But Moscow on Thursday broke its all-time temperature record for the second time in a week.

The mercury hit 100 (37.8 Celsius) on Thursday, beating by a fraction a record set on Monday, the country's news agencies reported.

Muscovites have been urged to skip work and stay indoors due to the heat and potentially dangerous smog from peat bog fires outside the city, as the third week of a protracted heat wave approached.

While the heat, which is relatively mild for the United States but highly unusual in Northern Europe, was expected to ease in the coming days, the smog from the peat bogs could be around for weeks, officials have said.

The Moscow region has thousands of acres of peat bogs — wetlands full of decayed plant matter. When they are drained for agriculture and other purposes, they can become a fire hazard.

When moisture is especially low, such as during heat waves, the peat, which is high in carbon, is higly flammable and can ignite and smolder underground and give off dangerous fumes.

Environmentalists said smog that blanketed Moscow in 2002 killed hundreds of people.