Russian minister: Authorities were too slow to call firefighting planes to battle wildfires

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia would have suffered less severe damage from wildfires this summer if authorities had engaged firefighting aircraft more quickly, a Cabinet member said Tuesday.

Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu told lawmakers that officials in the regions affected by the fires should have asked the federal government to send planes to help fight blazes before they swept out of control.

Shoigu also says provincial authorities should have banned local residents from visiting drought-dried forests to help prevent blazes.

The hottest summer since records began 130 years ago and an accompanying drought sparked tens of thousands of fires in Russia. More than 50 people have died directly in the fires, and about 2,500 residences across Russia were destroyed.

The drought has cost the country a third of its wheat crop, prompting the government to ban wheat exports through the end of the year.

Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik told the lower house, the State Duma, that the nation so far has harvested 47 million metric tons of the planned crop of 60-65 million metric tons. She said the country also has 26 million metric tons of grain stockpiled from the previous year. That should be enough to fully satisfy domestic demand, Skrynnik said.

Domestic grain and bread prices have risen despite the government claims that any price hikes were unfounded and pledges to punish the culprits.

During Tuesday's debates, some lawmakers criticized the government and the main pro-Kremlin United Russia party that dominates the parliament for pushing through 2006 legislation that dismantled a sprawling Soviet-era network of forest protection.

"The wildfires highlighted the incompetent reform that has destroyed the nation's centuries-old culture of forestry," said Anatoly Greshnevikov of the Just Russia faction.

The Duma passed a resolution calling for a review of the forest legislation but steering clear of any criticism of the federal government.