In Depth

Chernobyl forest fire: is the public at risk?

Atmospheric radiation spikes in exclusion zone following suspected arson blaze

Massive forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone have sent atmospheric radiation soaring to 17 times higher than normal levels, Ukrainian officials have warned.

 Two blazes broke out on Saturday near the site of the 1986 nuclear power station disaster, with firefighters still battling to contain the larger of the fires on Monday.

“There is bad news,” wrote Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service, in a Facebook post. “At the centre of the fire, radiation levels are high.”

What happened?

The two fires, which covered around 12 acres and 50 acres respectively, began on Saturday afternoon near the village of Vladimirovka, within the uninhabited Chernobyl exclusion zone, CNN reports.

In a video alongside his Facebook post, ecological inspection chief Firsov is seen holding up a Geiger counter showing a reading of 2.3 - while “the norm is 0.14”, he explains of the measurements, which refer to the microsievert per hour (μSv/h) reading.

The maximum allowable amount of natural background radiation is 0.5 μSv/h, according to Ukraine’s emergency services.

Prague-based news organisation Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) reports that more than 130 firefighters, three aircraft, and 21 vehicles were deployed on Saturday to battle the larger fire, with a further 14 firefighters tackling the smaller blaze.

The 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone has been overtaken by nature since residents were evacuted following the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown, and “forest fires are common”, adds news site Insider.

However, the authorities believe that the latest fires were caused by arson.

So how did the fire start?

Police in capital Kiev - around 60 miles south of Chernobyl - say they have identified a man who they believe started the fires. 

In a statement, the city’s force said the unnamed suspect is a 27-year-old resident of the nearby village of Rahivka. The man, who has not been officially charged as yet, reportedly told investigators that he had set some rubbish and grass on fire “for fun”. 

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Ecological inspection boss Firsov claimed in his Facebook post that citizens regularly set fire to grass during the spring and autumn seasons - a violation that carries a 175 UAH (£5.20) penalty.

Firsov has called on the Ukraine parliament to “significantly raise penalties” in order to prevent further wildfires.

“The problem of setting fires to grass by careless citizens in spring and autumn has long been a very acute problem for us,” he wrote. “Every year we see the same picture - fields, reeds, forests burn in all regions.”

However, police investigating last weekend’s fires “have launched a probe into the destruction of forestry, an offence which can be punished with hefty fines or imprisonment for up to five years”, RFERL reports.

Is the public in danger?

Despite the alarming peaks in radiation recorded at the centre of the fires, Kiev and the surrounding area does not appear the be affected. .

A statement released by Ukraine’s Emergency Preparedness and Radiation Monitoring Department on Sunday said: “It can be argued that as of 5PM on 5 April, a fire in the Exclusion Zone and unconditional (compulsory) eviction had no effect on the radiation situation in Kyiv and the suburbs.”

“You don’t have to be afraid of opening your windows and airing out your home,” added Firsov in a Facebook post about the results of the radiation tests.

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