Yakutia — Spring flooding across Russia exceeded the worst forecasts Friday as rivers blocked with ice overflowed and swamped almost 40 towns and villages where some 54,000 people live. Serious flooding and record water levels were reported from the Volga region through the Urals and across Siberia. In the hardest-hit area in the republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the river Lena rose beyond 20 metres – 8 metres over the critical level – before air force bombing shifted the ice jam and the waters subsided in the stricken town of Lensk, the news agency Interfax reported. “The town is practically submerged,” Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said at a cabinet meeting in Moscow after he was briefed by telephone from the scene by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. Most of the 27,000 inhabitants were evacuated 200 kilometres north to the Siberian town of Mirny. Some remained perched on rooftops waiting to be airlifted to safety in a huge rescue operation involving 12,000 people. Around 1,700 houses in Lensk were totally ruined by the flood and another 400 were simply swept away by the torrent, Shoigu said. The water level was reported to have dropped by almost two metres by mid-afternoon as the 100-kilometre jam of ice shifted after the blasts. Despite the detonation this week of about 90 tons of explosive charges on the ice and dozens of 250-500 kilo bombs dropped from the air, the blockage has repeatedly locked up and reflooded Lensk. Specialists also expected separate ice barriers to form about 300 kilometres upstream and inundate more towns and villages where 20,000 people live. The republic’s president, Mikhail Nikolayev, said the floods had exceeded the worst expectations and that the water level had peaked as high as 22 metres. Six transport planes with emergency supplies prepared to leave Moscow for the disaster area, where tent villages were being set up to take the evacuees. Water levels in rivers have reached 100-year record heights because of heavy rainfall and large amounts of snow and ice melting after the exceptionally harsh winter. Other Siberian rivers were also overflowing almost as badly as the Lena, including the Enisei and its tributary, the Podkammennaya Tunguska. The fresh disaster comes after desperate winter months in many parts of the country. Chaotic fuel supply arrangements left thousands of people without heating in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Centigrade. Overuse of electric heating appliances led to more power shortages. In contrast with the flooding, forest fires raged Friday in the mild spring weather over large areas of the Russian Far East. About 4,000 hectares of woodland were in flames in the Khabarovsk region and on the Kamchatka peninsula. The emergency services reported 27 separate blazes after rains midweek doused 30 others.