Russia called in the army on Friday to combat fires sweeping across the drought-stricken European part of the country and forcing thousands of people to flee.

The emergencies ministry said at least 25 people had been killed as high winds fanned fires in forests and farmland parched by a prolonged heatwave.

More than 2,170 people fled their homes as fires engulfed large swathes of the Moscow, Voronezh, Nizhnenovogorod, Vladimir and Ryazan regions.

Hot summers are not unusual even in northern Russia, but this year temperatures have soared to record levels, destroying one-fifth of the country’s grain crop and causing hazardous health conditions.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, ordered the armed forces to help douse the fires on Friday, admitting that Russia was technically ill-equipped to combat the escalating crisis.

“The situation is really difficult. Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity rapidly to solve such disasters, “ he said during a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, the prime minister.

Mr Medvedev pledged that the government would provide shelter and compensation for people displaced by the fires. “We must resettle people in various places temporarily, in normal, sanitary conditions of course, and there must be a doctor because this is a huge psychological stress,” he said.

Early in the day Mr Putin flew to the Nizhnenovogorod region, 430km east of Moscow, for emergency talks with local officials and urged bureaucrats not to hinder the disbursement of compensation to fire victims.

Angry villagers complained that local authorities had bungled firefighting operations, prompting Mr Putin to promise a full investigation of those responsible.

Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s emergencies minister, warned that it would be difficult to contain the fires and urged Rosatom, the state atomic power agency, and the ministries of energy and transport to take steps to protect infrastructure.

In Moscow, the temperature dropped slightly on Friday after reaching a 39 celsius record earlier in the week, but is expected to rise again in the coming days.

Peat-bog fires outside Moscow have shrouded the capital in a smog as hazardous, according to health officials, as smoking two packets of cigarettes a day.

Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief health official, said working hours should be shortened until the heatwave abated and advised Muscovites to avoid going out or driving cars.

At least 2,000 people, many of them intoxicated, have drowned while bathing in rivers since the heatwave erupted.

Even before the fires broke out, many farmers in European Russia were facing bankruptcy as the drought parched grain crops and pasture lands. SovEcon, the Moscow-based agriculture consultancy, warned this week that Russia’s grain harvest would drop by at least 20 per cent this year to 70m-75m tons, barely enough to cover the nation’s needs. Many small farmers are slaughtering livestock, unable to afford the soaring cost of animal feed.

The Russian Orthodox Church called for prayers for milder weather on Friday and urged people not to resort to “magic or witchcraft” to invoke an end to the heatwave.

Mr Medvedev blamed the abnormally hot weather for the rash of fires in Russia on Friday and called for increased international efforts to prevent climate change.

“What is happening to the climate on the planet should stimulate each one of us, I mean heads of state and social organisations, to adopt more energetic measures to prevent changes in the global climate,” he said.

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