Forest fires in Chernobyl's exclusion zone are not uncommon, but this huge blaze has experts concerned over rising radiation levels.
A 50-acre forest fire near the Ukrainian village of Vladimirovka broke out on April 4, with valiant firefighters still battling to contain it.
Unfortunately, the fire is within Chernobyl’s uninhabited exclusion zone — and radiation rates near the nuclear reactor site have risen to 16 times above normal as a result.
According to CNN, first responders were still fighting two hefty blazes as recently as Monday morning. Head of Ukraine’s ecological inspection service Yegor Firsov is concerned about the potential for the long-term consequences.
“There is bad news — in the center of the fire, radiation is above normal,” he wrote in a Facebook post that includes video footage of his Geiger counter. “As you can see in the video, the readings of the device are 2.3, when the norm is 0.14. But this is only within the area of the fire outbreak.”
Firefighters said they managed to contain two of the smaller fires, according to The Guardian, though the problem is far from over. As it stands, 124 firefighters were deployed — backed up by two An-32P airplanes and an Mi-8 helicopter — with 42 aerial water drops deployed in the last few days.
Firsov’s measurements are particularly troubling, as the maximum allowable microsievert per hour (µSv/h) is 0.5 — and his reported figure was almost five times as much. Fortunately, this increase in radiation levels has yet to be reported in the capital of Kiev, or the city of Chernobyl, itself.
“You don’t have to be afraid of opening your windows and airing out your home during the quarantine,” wrote Firsov in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic coinciding with concerns of radiation.
Vladimirovka is located within the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, which has been abandoned since the infamous 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant sent radioactive fallout across the continent.
Millions of citizens across the region were affected, many of whom suffer to this day. On the bright side, the exclusion zone has seen some promising change in the last few years. Nature has retaken control, with animals and plant life flourishing in the region.
While forest fires are not uncommon in the region, this particular blaze was started by an irresponsible citizen in a troubling spot. Though Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 was finally covered by a protective dome in 2016, fires nearby reignite regional trauma, nonetheless.
“The problem of setting fires to grass by careless citizens in spring and autumn has long been a very acute problem for us,” wrote Firsov. “Every year we see the same picture — fields, reeds, forests burn in all regions.”
Police have since arrested a 27-year-old suspect in the matter, who claimed he set grass and garbage on fire in three different places “for fun.” He reportedly said that after the wind picked up, he tried to put them out to no avail.
According to NBC News, the fine for committing arson is currently at around $6.50 — with Firsov aiming to raise that by “50-100 times.”
“There are relevant draft bills,” he said. “I hope they will be voted in. Otherwise, large-scale fires will continue to occur every autumn and spring.”
For the head of Ukraine’s emergency services, Andrii Vatolin, this issue is far more personal. For somebody overseeing the safety of over 100 men and women needlessly risking their lives, he certainly had a point.
“My indignation is in the fact that the firefighters who are forced to work in the exclusion zone are not liquidating the consequences of an accident, but the consequences of human negligence and criminal acts,” he wrote on the ministry’s Facebook page.
Raising the criminal fine for arson from $6.50 to a more prohibitive figure seems like a reasonable step to take — especially near Chernobyl.
After learning about the radiation spike caused by forest fires at Chernobyl, take a look at 37 photos of Chernobyl today after being frozen in time by a nuclear meltdown. Then, learn about scientists finding radiation-eating black fungi at Chernobyl.