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Army fighting Russian fires

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

MOSCOW -- Vast sections of Russia were under a state of emergency Friday as more than 10,000 firefighters fought to save villages and forests from being reduced to ash and ember during the country's hottest summer on record.

At least 25 deaths were reported in the last two days alone and the Kremlin called out the army to help as fires raged over 214,136 acres of woodland and peat bog.

More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been forced to flee as blazes left their houses in smoldering ruins and filled the air with smog and ash.

Weeping women greeted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as he visited Verkhnyaya Vereya, a village where all 341 homes were burned to the ground and five residents were killed in the blaze.

The village, one of three hamlets destroyed around Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's fifth-largest city some 300 miles east of Moscow, looked like a ghost town coated in gray ash.

''Before winter, each house will be restored,'' Putin told the distressed crowd. ''I promise -- the village will be rebuilt.''

One sobbing woman thanked him for his ''serious talk'' and promises of 200,000 rubles ($6,500) in compensation for each villager, and Putin kissed her on the cheek.

Officials have declared a state of emergency in 27 of Russia's 83 regions, with the hardest-hit being the Moscow region -- which doesn't include the city itself -- and other areas south and east of the capital, including the Voronezh, Ryazan, Lipetsk and Nizhny Novgorod regions.

In all nearly 2.5 million acres of land have been consumed by wildfires so far this season.

During his tour, Putin urged local officials to step up operations to defeat the fires and asked President Dmitry Medvedev to send troops in to help. Television showed Putin in a birch forest calling Medvedev on a cell phone, then switched to footage of the president taking the call and promising to mobilize the army.

Fires have all but encircled Voronezh, a city of 850,000 people located 300 miles south of Moscow. The streets of Voronezh were filled with smog Friday and a giant wall of rising black smoke could be seen on the horizon.

Weather experts say as global warming intensifies, Russians unaccustomed to such sweltering heat should brace for more summers like this. The mercury hit 100 in Moscow on Thursday, setting a new record, and July was the hottest month ever recorded in Russia.

''In 130 years of daily weather monitoring in Moscow, there has never been such a hot summer,'' said Alexei Lyakhov, director of Moscow's Meteorological Service. ''This is not normal weather, this has never happened.''

Some 24 million acres of grain crops -- an area the size of Kentucky -- have been destroyed by the heat wave, the Agriculture Ministry says.