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Wind-Fanned Fires Sweeping Mongolian Grasslands

April 22, 1996

BEIJING (AP) _ Huge fires fanned by strong winds are raging throughout much of drought-stricken northern Mongolia, threatening the lives and livelihood of nomads living on the grasslands, local officials said today.

One person was known to have died and two were injured by the fires sweeping the remote and sparsely populated area, Jan Swietering of the U.N. Development Program in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, said in a telephone interview.

The blazes, which began in early April, have also forced the evacuation of more than 6,000 herdsmen, officials of the Mongolian Emergency Commission said in telephone interviews.

The lack of people available to fight the blazes meant that many were burning out of control, swept by strong winds through parched grasslands and forests. Many firefighters had only axes, shovels and their coats to battle the blazes.

Like much of central Eurasia, Mongolia has gotten little snow or rain this winter. Its forests and grasslands are tinder dry.

Reports from U.N. agencies dated April 20 showed more than 13,000 square miles of land affected by about two dozen blazes, most of them still burning, according to satellite photos.

The closest to the capital was about 40 miles south of Ulan Bator.

Local officials and residents, battling around the clock, had managed by late last week to extinguish fires on 8,400 square miles of steppe. But many others continued to burn and were expected to spread.

The charred grasslands have left many herdsmen, almost entirely dependent on their cattle for food, clothing and shelter, without livelihood.

Dozens of people in the eastern province of Dornod were left homeless after blazes destroyed their homes, and the Emergency Commission has been delivering food and clothing to the worst-hit area, the U.N. report said.

Mongolia’s economy has been struggling since it lost its lifeline with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its own democratic reforms. Many state farms and factories have closed down, food is rationed and most items are in short supply.

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