Efforts to fight Russia's devastating forest fires have been crippled by a law passed four years ago by Vladimir Putin, environmentalists and politicians have said.

More than 40 people have died and up to 2,000 families have lost their homes to forest fires caused 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 Mr 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 809m hectares, twice the size of the European Union's landmass and the oxygen they produce is vital to helping the planet contain climate change.

The controversial law took effect in 2007 and gave responsibility for forest protection to regional authorities.

Environmentalists have blamed bureaucracy and business lobbies for the faults in the forestry legislation, which they say was aimed at milking the Russian forests for quick profits.

Under Mr 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.

Alexei Yaroshenko at Greenpeace Russia said 'the law is good for large companies enabling them to quickly cut trees, make money and leave.'

Mr Yaroshenko also said that the new code abolished Russia's 70,000 forest guards.

The forest guards' role was 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.

An official at the government's Forestry Agency, currently the top authority overseeing Russian forests, making up 22% of global forest resources, said the legal problems will be taken into account once the fires are extinguished.

Agency spokeswoman Viktoria Mironova has said that '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, we will have to draw conclusions.'

However, Mr 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.

Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu today 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.