MOSCOW, Aug 20 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday sacked Russia’s top forest official over criticism that he did little to combat deadly forest fires that were unleashed by a record heat wave and blanketed Moscow in smoke.
At a government meeting, Putin sacked Alexei Savinov, head of the Forestry Agency, following criticism that he kept a low profile and was not in sufficient control of Russia’s wooded areas. Savinov was replaced by his deputy, Viktor Maslyakov.
Critics have said the Forest Code, rushed through the State Duma (parliament) in 2006 on Putin’s orders, was the main cause of devastating wildfires that raged over Central Russia, because the law disbanded a centralised system of forest protection.
Russian forests cover 809 million hectares (2 billion acres), twice the size of the European Union landmass. But the new legislation deprived the Forestry Agency of important powers to oversee them, critics said.
Putin on Friday also pledged another 2.7 billion roubles ($88.52 million) in aid for wildfire victims, on top of 5 billion roubles he had promised earlier.
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu told a news conference on Thursday that the cost of extinguishing fires across Russia, as well as funds allocated to building new houses, had reached 12 billion roubles ($394.2 million).
President Dmitry Medvedev lifted the state of emergency on Friday in the Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Mordovia regions, after a torrential rain gave much respite to the capital at the end of the country’s most severe heat wave ever recorded.
The heat and wildfires are expected to shave $14 billion off this year’s gross domestic product, and have shrivelled grain crops. Moscow’s top health official said the acrid smoke doubled Moscow’s normal death rate.