MOSCOW - Russia fought a deadly battle Tuesday to prevent wildfires from engulfing key nuclear sites as alarm mounted over the impact on health of a toxic smoke cloud shrouded over Moscow.
Two soldiers were killed by blazing trees as they worked to put out a fire dangerously close to Russia's main nuclear research center, while workers were also mobilized to fight blazes near a nuclear reprocessing plant.
After almost two weeks of fires that have claimed over 50 lives and even part destroyed a military storage site, the authorities said they were making progress in fighting fires that still covered 174,035 hectares of land
"A positive dynamic in liquidating the wildfires continues to be observed," said the head of the emergencies ministry's crisis unit, Vladimir Stepanov.
"The numbers (of emergency workers) have been increased in those regions where there is a difficult situation with the fires," he added.
The emergencies ministry said that over the last 24 hours, 247 new fires had appeared, more than the 239 that were extinguished, and 557 fires were still raging across the affected region.
Two members of the Russian armed forces were killed Monday fighting wildfires around the major nuclear research center in Sarov, a town still closed to foreigners as in Soviet times.
Reporting the first death, Interfax news agency said "A burning tree fell on the soldier. He died of cranial trauma on the way to the hospital," quoting defense ministry spokesman Vasily Panchenkov.
The local crisis unit later confirmed that another serviceman, who usually worked at a local prison camp, was also killed by a burning tree while fighting the fire, Interfax said.
Meanwhile, officials said fires close to the town of Snezhinsk in the Urals and home to one of Russia's top nuclear research centers had been localized.
The acrid smog from wildfires 100 kilometers (60 miles) out in the countryside that descended over Moscow lightened Tuesday morning but forecasters warned it could return and the air quality was still dangerously poor.
The Moscow authorities acknowledged for the first time on Monday that the daily mortality rate in Moscow had doubled and morgues were overflowing with bodies but the federal government has yet to confirm that statistic.
Carbon monoxide in the Moscow air was 1.4 times higher than acceptable levels Tuesday, the state pollution watchdog said, a slight improvement from the day before. On Saturday they had been an alarming 6.6 times worse.
Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, meeting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the first time since returning from a much-criticized holiday, said calls to the emergency health services in Moscow had grown by one-fifth.
Luzhkov initially refused to return from holiday, with his aides earning ridicule in the tabloid press by denying there was any crisis in the city.
"You of course did the right thing by coming back from holiday. You did it on time," Putin said pointedly.
The authorities have rejected criticism that they were poorly prepared for the heatwave, which meteorologists have said is the worst in the 1,000 year history of Russia.
"Even if we had started (preparing for the heatwave and fires) 10 years ago we would not have been able to do anything," President Dmitry Medvedev said late Monday on a visit to one of the worst affected regions.
Moreover Russia is such a vast country. "Putting out fires in Luxembourg is presumably easier than in Russia," he remarked.
The heatwave has a huge impact on all areas of Russian society and economists warned Tuesday the record temperatures could have cost the country 15 billion dollars and undercut a modest economic revival.
Worst hit has been the agriculture industry, which has seen 10 million hectares of land destroyed.
Putin, who shocked international markets last week by announcing that Russia was banning grain exports, slashed the grain harvest forecast by another 10 million tonnes.
He also warned the Moscow could even extend the export ban, due to expire on December 31, saying that anyone waiting for that date was doing so "in vain".