Wind-whipped grassland fires set by Russian farmers preparing for spring planting have killed at least 23 people, injured more than 900 and left 5,000 homeless, authorities said Tuesday. The fires swept through nearly 60 villages and destroyed or damaged more than 1,400 homes in the southeastern Siberian region of Khakassia, according to officials cited by Tass, the state-run news agency.
Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said 6,000 firefighters, aided by aircraft, had extinguished blazes in 38 villages. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally coordinated the operations, his spokesperson said. Regional Governor Viktor Zimin estimated it would cost $94 million to rebuild. “This fire would not have happened if people were not playing with matches,” Puchkov’s deputy, Alexander Chupriyan, said in a statement. “And it wasn’t children, but adults.”
Every spring, dozens of homes burn down because of farmers burning grass, he added. Five criminal cases have been opened, authorities said. Officials cited unseasonably dry, hot weather, “uncharacteristically strong and rough winds” and uncontrolled burning for the severity of this year’s destruction. Temperatures in Khakassia hit 77 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, when the fires erupted. The region’s average April temperature is just above freezing.
“As soon as snow melts, while rivers are still covered by ice, dry grass burns like gunpowder,” said Puchkov. “People begin to burn grass on their plots and fire spreads to agricultural land and pastures are burnt.” Greenpeace blamed him and Zimin for the disaster.
“The establishment of fire safety measures for the burning of dry grass was commissioned by the president two years ago,” Alexei Yaroshenko, a Greenpeace forest expert, said on radio station Govorit Moskva, The Moscow Times reported. “The blame lies above all with the Emergency Situations Ministry and, of course, with the head of the region.” The Federal Forestry Agency also accused regional authorities of failing to adopt its recommendations for preventing wildfires.