| GEO World|
Co-pilot Putin helps put out Russia's wildfires
| Updated at: 0846 PST, Wednesday, August 11, 2010|
MOSCOW: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into a firefighting plane Tuesday and dumped water on two of the hundreds of wildfires sweeping through western Russia and cloaking Moscow in a suffocating smog.
Putin has been a very visible leader in the battle against the fires, which have caused billions of dollars in damage and left thousands homeless in the past two weeks. He has demanded that soldiers help overstretched firefighting brigades and has walked through smoldering villages, consoling residents and promising them new homes by fall.
But with his once sky-high approval ratings dropping — and sociologists warning that discontent could grow as the fires and a severe drought take their toll — Putin has not let up.
He took off Tuesday in a Be-200 firefighting plane and then moved into the copilot's seat.
Television footage showed him pushing a button to unleash water on blazing forest fires about 120 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Moscow.
After hitting the button, Putin glanced toward the pilot and asked, "Was that OK?"
The stunt was classic Putin. In past years, he has copiloted a fighter jet, ridden a horse bare-chested in Siberia and descended to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-sub. Just last month he drove a Harley Davidson motorcycle to a biker rally.
All of his exploits have been widely publicized on the national television networks, which are under government control. Russia holds its next presidential election in 2012, and Putin would be eligible to run.
Damage from the fires was expected to hit $15 billion, or about 1 percent of Russia's gross domestic product, the business newspaper Kommersant reported Tuesday. The government has yet to release any damage estimates.