MOSCOW (Reuters) - Efforts to fight Russia's devastating forest fires have been crippled by a law passed four years ago at the behest of Vladimir Putin and powerful logging interests, environmentalists and politicians said on Tuesday.
More than 40 people have died and about 2,000 families have lost their homes to forest blazes stoked by Russia's worst heatwave in decades. Russia's leaders have declared a state of emergency in seven provinces.
But critics blame the lower house of parliament (Duma) for rushing through a new Forest Code in 2006 on Putin's orders. This disbanded a centralised system of forest protection and turned the country's vast forests into a virtual no-man's land.
Russia's forests cover 809 million hectares, twice the size of the European Union landmass, and the oxygen they produce is vital to helping the planet contain climate change.
"There was never such a mess in Russian forests as there is now," said Gennady Gudkov, a deputy from the Just Russia party and one of 102 MPs who wrote an open letter to Putin in 2006 asking him to delay the new code.
"In our parliament everything is done quickly. If the government wants to push something through there is no way to block it," said Gudkov. The code took effect in 2007 and handed responsibility for forest protection to regional authorities.
Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday told President Dmitry Medvedev that 155,000 people across the country were involved in fighting the fires. He said 360 villages have been saved from advancing blazes in the last 24 hours.
Officials disclosed for the first time that the forest fires had destroyed 13 hangars full of aircraft and equipment at a naval base outside Moscow last Thursday. The Prosecutor- General's office refused to give details but news website lifenews.ru said that 200 aircraft had been reduced to ashes.
Environmentalists blame bureaucracy and business lobbies for the faults in the forestry legislation, which they say was aimed at milking the Russian forests for quick profits.
"This law is good for large companies with (close connections to the authorities), enabling them to quickly cut trees, make money and leave," said Alexei Yaroshenko at Greenpeace Russia.
Yaroshenko also said the new code abolished Russia's 70,000 forest guards, who used to watch over the trees and call in fire fighters to any blaze. It also made it easier to reclassify forest as lucrative development land.
Under Putin's 2000-2008 presidency, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party drafted a forest strategy aiming to exploit the nation's timber on a scale comparable to its oil and gas riches, which are the world's largest.
Environmentalists say Russia's largest timber processing firm Ilim Group was one of the main driving forces behind the new Forest Code.
President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor in the Kremlin, once worked as head of Ilim's legal department.
"There are excesses in the new code," said Dmitry Chuiko, adviser to Ilim Group's board. "The practical experience has shown that a centralised system of fire protection should be stronger than stipulated."
But he added: "On the whole the code is good for us. It protected the interests of large forest users."
U.S.-based International Paper Co, the world's largest pulp and paper maker, owns a 50 percent stake in Ilim.
An official at the government's Forestry Agency, currently the top authority overseeing Russian forests, making up 22 percent of global forest resources, said the legal problems will be taken into account once the fires are extinguished.
"The new system has started working. Yes, maybe it has some faults. The centralised system is always better because it is easier to find people responsible," said the agency spokeswoman Viktoria Mironova. "We will have to draw conclusions."
However, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any radical changes to the code were unlikely. "This is a well functioning system which only needs some minor adjustments," he said.
Writing by Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Michael Stott and Sonya Hepinstall