Volunteers look at the sky as they prepare for extinguishing a fire at a forest near the village of Tokhushevo, some 50 km outside Sarov. -AFP Photo

TOKUSHEVO Overwhelmed and under-equipped, firefighters struggled in vain against spreading wildfires in the forest of Tokushevo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Russias top nuclear research centre.

“We have no control (over the fires), now all we can do is get ourselves killed,” said firefighter Vasily Filin, who like his colleagues was battling the blazes without the benefit of any protective equipment.

“There is nothing we can do. We need helicopters or planes to put out the fire,” he said.

In a nature reserve 500 kilometres (300 miles) from Moscow near the nuclear centre in the town of Sarov, the forest of Tokushevo was burning as Russia struggles with the worst heatwave in its millennium-long history.

The fires near Sarov have raised concerns about the nuclear centre, which is in an area still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times, but no blazes have yet been registered on its territory.

Authorities were not taking any chances however, and on Thursday announced they were boosting firefighting teams to more than 3,400 people to keep the fires from spreading to Sarov. The help would no doubt be welcomed by those fighting the blazes in Tokushevo.

Firefighters here said it had proved impossible to extinguish the flames from ground level. They had retreated to an area cleared of trees to attempt to contain the blazes.

The firefighters said they had been told that helicopters and planes would not be sent to douse the fires, which were sending a thick cloud of smoke above the trees, because the blazes were not powerful enough and were concentrated in the forest.

With no hope of aerial assistance, the firefighters were digging up the earth around the forest to keep the flames from spreading, with two tractors making ditches to act as buffers against the fires.

“We are working the earth, making ditches so there is no more grass. When the grass is high, the fire spreads quickly, but this way it will advance slowly,” said Dmitry Turdakov, an official with the regional firefighting department.

Unable to cope on their own, the local firefighters were being helped by colleagues from neighbouring towns, by forest rangers and especially by numerous volunteers who were arriving throughout the day armed with shovels.

“There are villages right beside (the forest.) This is why Im coming. Im afraid that my home will burn. We are all afraid,” said one of the volunteers, who declined to give his name.

Like many other local residents, he seemed far more concerned for nearby homes than the possibility the fires might reach the nuclear centre.

Powerless against the flames, the firefighters and volunteers spent most of their time in the cleared-out area waiting for the fires to emerge from the forest, smoking cigarettes and drinking the occasional beer.

As night fell, six fire trucks, two tractors and about 50 people, three-quarters of them volunteers, were on hand and planning to spend the rest of the night on watch. -AFP