More than a week has passed since two major fires broke out inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. They were inching closer to the shuttered power plant and the radioactive waste now disposed of on-site as hundreds of firefighter battled the blazes. As of Tuesday, however, the fires appear to be out.
With the help of some rain, firefighters in planes and choppers finally extinguished the flames. While there’s no open fire burning, the forest floor is still experiencing some “slight smoldering,” according to a statement from the Ukraine Interior Ministry.
Any type of fire near Chernobyl is frightening. This is the site of a major nuclear meltdown in 1986. The area has improved dramatically over the past few decades, with wildlife returning and tourists visiting the site, including the recently opened reactor room where a series of bad decisions led to the meltdown. But fires are capable of disturbing the radioactive particles hiding in contaminated areas. A 2016 study published in Scientific Reports found that previous fires in 2015 sent radioactive particles streaming all the way to Eastern Europe, though the levels were “far below a dose from a medical X-ray.”
The recent fires also made a run toward radioactive waste stored near the plant. According to a satellite analysis conducted by Aspectum, a geospatial analytics company with an office in Ukraine, the flames made it within 120 feet of a nuclear waste facility. The current fires appear to have dodged a bullet and government monitoring indicates that radiation levels are normal in the nearby capital of Kyiv.
Ukrainian authorities said the fire was only about 50 acres as of last Sunday. Greenpeace Russia, however, analyzed satellite data that shows “the largest fires in the history of the exclusion zone.” The group’s analysis of imagery snapped on Monday indicates that the bigger of the two fires was roughly 84,000 acres while the smaller one was about 29,440 acres. It will take further analysis to finalize the estimated acreage burned.
When the fires first began burning last week, authorities had recorded radiation levels 16 times higher than normal in the exclusion zone.
Though the growing threat of wildfires is a genuine concern for Chernobyl as the region gets warmer and drier due to climate change, the spark for these flames appears to be directly tied with human activity. Police have identified a 37-year-old allegedly responsible for setting one of the fires. Still, winds and dry conditions contributed to how the fire moved across the landscape. Unfortunately, hot and dry is becoming the norm here as the climate crisis unfolds.