Sci-Fi Fanatics Suspected of Arson as Wildfires Near Chernobyl Create World’s Worst Air Pollution

This satellite image shows the burned area around Chernobyl in Ukraine on April 10, 2020, following an outbreak of wildfires.
This satellite image shows the burned area around Chernobyl in Ukraine on April 10, 2020, following an outbreak of wildfires.
Image: Copernicus Sentinel-2

Wildfires are burning yet again in the area outside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. The latest round of blazes has sent smoke traveling to the capital of Kyiv, creating some of the worst air pollution in the world.

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The Chernobyl area has been on fire off and on since last week, and in a weird twist, cult-like devotees to a Soviet-era sci-fi novel may be to blame. By Monday, Ukraine officials said they had managed to put the fires out only for new ones to pop up. The new ones haven’t yet reached the defunct power plant’s 1,000 square mile exclusion zone where the radioactive contamination from the 1986 nuclear disaster is highest.

The Ukrainian government has said the fires are burning west of the zone near the district of Olevs’kyi, as well as southwest near the city of Zhytomyr. The government is fighting the fire with aircraft, as well as using military-grade bulldozers to clear roads in hard-to-reach forested areas, according to a statement. While the fact that radioactive material isn’t yet burning may bring some relief for the residents of Kyiv, the air quality as a result of these fires is still really damn bad.

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On Thursday, the city topped the world ranking for worst air quality, according to data from United Nations-run IQAir. The city’s air quality jumped to 393 on the air quality index. That’s considered “hazardous,” the worst rating on the index. By Friday, the capital’s air quality improved somewhat, ranking it below Chinese cities like Shenyang, Shanghai, and Hangzhou where air pollution levels are higher for the moment. Kyiv’s air remains unhealthy for sensitive groups, though.

What’s more, Ukraine is in the middle of the coronavirus crisis like the rest of us. So far, the country has confirmed more than 4,600 cases of the virus with at least 125 deaths. People in Kyiv are mostly home due to the coronavirus lockdown, which could help protect them from the twin dangers the city is facing. Preliminary research shows that exposure to air pollution may increase the likelihood of death from the highly contagious virus.

Unfortunately, the situation may get worse before it gets better. Strong winds blowing the smoke east toward Kyiv are also helping fuel the spread of the fires, Thomas Smith, an assistant professor of environmental geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Earther. Satellite images clearly show the way winds are fanning the flames and sending dangerous smoke straight to Kyiv.

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“[W]e’ve just got the perfect storm with a very intense fire burning through lots of material with the wind blowing just in the right direction, and with the right strength as well,” Smith said.

The strong winds could also blow the fires east toward Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, which would again raise the risk of radioactive contamination spreading through smoke. The recently squelched fires approached close to the defunct nuclear power plant. But if the new fires enter the exclusion zone, they will likely near a dump of radioactive waste that is stored on-site. That would present an entirely new threat to public health and safety.

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The same wind patterns are expected to continue for a few days, Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service for the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, told Earther in an email.

Ukraine’s wildfires are off to a terrifying start this year: Its total fire intensity—a metric defined by heat intensity—for March and April 2020 have been “well above” the 2003 to 2019 average, according to Parrington. He also noted that the total estimated carbon emissions for the March 1 to April 16 period in Ukraine have been the highest among the 18 years’ worth of global fire data the service has. Luckily, grasslands typically grow back in a year, offsetting whatever emissions they release.

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Still, this is a grave situation for Ukraine. The fires are likely caused by arson, with some Chernobyl tour operators blaming “stalkers,” a group of cult-like exclusion zone explorers inspired by the 1972 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic. Guides believe the stalkers are intentionally setting fires as the pandemic pauses tourism at the plant. As if things couldn’t weirder.

What we do know is that the world is growing warmer and drier, creating the perfect conditions for these types of fires to spark and spread throughout the landscape. Even a radioactive landscape. That’s enough to freak me out, even without the sci-fi arsonist thing.

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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