(AP) 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.
Putin 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 response: "A direct hit!"
PHOTOS of Co-Pilot Putin:
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 in it.
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.
The hottest summer since record-keeping began 130 years ago has cost Russia more than a third of its wheat crop and prompted the government to ban wheat exports. Putin said last week the ban would last through the end of the year, but his deputy said Tuesday the government may consider lifting the ban in October once the harvest is complete.
A rise in grain prices could lead to a spike in inflation. Any significant increase in the price of bread also could increase public dissatisfaction with the government.
The acrid smog that has engulfed Moscow for a week eased a bit Tuesday, but the concentration of pollutants remained high. Putin summoned Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who said the situation in the capital was difficult but that city health authorities were doing what was needed to help people cope with the heat and smog.
Ambulances calls have risen by nearly a quarter, Luzhkov said.
The business daily Vedomosti cited a sociologist as saying the handling of the wildfire crisis could weigh heavily on approval ratings for Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.
Vedomosti noted three polls conducted in July showed Medvedev's rating had dropped up to 10 percentage points since the start of the year, and Putin's had declined by up to 6 percentage points. The paper cited Leonty Byzov, a leading sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying the wildfires could drag those figures down even further and stoke anti-government protests.
The lowest approval ratings were reported by the independent Levada polling agency, which gave Medvedev 38 percent and Putin 44 percent, the paper said. The highest were 52 for Medvedev and 61 for Putin, registered by the Public Opinion Foundation. The margin of error for the polls was about plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Medvedev was slow to interrupt his Black Sea vacation even as fires around Moscow grew worse, and, unlike Putin -- who went out in jeans to meet with sobbing villagers and exhausted firefighters -- mostly conferred with officials after his return.