Wildfire in radioactive forest spreads near Chernobyl

The fire has come to within about two kilometers of the abandoned nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986

Chernobyl Fire map 5:50 a.m. EDT April 12, 2020
The map shows heat detected by a satellite as late at 5:50 a.m. EDT April 12, 2020 on a wildfire burning in the exclusion zone near Chernobyl.

The wildfire burning through the radioactive forest in Ukraine  has come to within about two kilometers of the “New Safe Containment” structure that covers the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986 at Pripyat.

According to satellite imagery from 5:50 a.m. EDT April 12 the eastward-spreading fire has crossed the Pripyat River just north of the city of Chernobyl. Our very unofficial estimates conclude that the blaze has burned nearly 18,000 acres. An even larger fire is burning about 25 km to the west.

Elevated radiation levels have been detected recently near wildfires burning in the Exclusion Zone or Zone of Alienation around the abandoned nuclear power plant. People are not allowed to live within 19 miles of the closed facility, however about 200 have remained in the area despite orders to leave.

Below is an excerpt from a New York Times article published April 11:

…Over time, radiation has settled into the soil, where its half-life ticks away mostly harmlessly. But the roots of moss, trees and other vegetation have absorbed some radiation, bringing it to the surface and spreading radioactive particles in smoke when it burns. Wildfires break out there often but the blazes burning through dry grass and pine forests this spring, after a warm and dry winter, are far larger than the typical brush fires in the Chernobyl zone.

By Saturday, about 400 firefighters, 100 fire engines and several helicopters had been deployed to the exclusion zone.

According to the state center of radiation and nuclear safety, contaminated smoke is expected to reach Kyiv this weekend. However, the radiation level in the air, once smoke has disbursed far from the fires, is considered safe. It is expected to be about a hundredth of the level deemed an emergency.

The Exclusion Zone Management Agency is trying to protect critical infrastructure in the Chernobyl zone, such as the plant itself and the so-called “graves,” or parking lots of abandoned, highly contaminated trucks and tracked vehicles that were left from the original disaster, officials said.

“We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire,” said Kateryna Pavlova, the acting head of the agency that oversees the area.

Wildfire burns closer to Chernobyl

On April 10 a large wildfire was within a few kilometers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986

Chernobyl Fire Map photo
Sentinel-2 satellite photo showing the wildfire burning in the exclusion zone near Chernobyl, Ukraine. April 10, 2020.

(UPDATED at 4:11 p.m. EDT April 11, 2020)

The Sentinel-2 satellite photo above was taken April 10, showing the wildfire approximately 3 kilometers south of the New Safe Containment structure that covers the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986 at Pripyat. The area in the photo is similar to that shown in the map below which includes heat detected by a satellite.


(Originally published at 10:59 p.m. EDT April 10, 2020)

Chernobyl Fire Map
The map shows heat detected over the previous seven days, as late at 7:42 a.m. EDT April 10, 2020 on a wildfire burning in the exclusion zone near Chernobyl. Heat was detected somewhere within each of the circles on the map.

A wildfire that started April 4 in Ukraine has spread rapidly in the last two days to come within approximately 3 kilometers of the New Safe Containment structure that covers the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that exploded in 1986 at Pripyat.

Satellites detected heat from the fire at 7:42 a.m. EDT April 4 showing the fire extending to the Pripyat River just north of the abandoned city of Chernobyl.

Our very unofficial estimates based on the satellite data put the size at about 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) as of Friday morning. The fire has been spreading east and southeast.

In recent days elevated radiation levels have been detected near wildfires burning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. People are not allowed to live within 19 miles of the closed facility, however about 200 people have remained in the area despite orders to leave.

New Safe Containment structure Chernobyl
New Safe Containment structure over the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Photo by Tim Porter.
Chernobyl Fire Map 8 am EDT 4-9-2020
The map shows heat detected as late at 8 a.m. EDT April 9, 2020 on a wildfire burning in the exclusion zone near Chernobyl, approximately 24 hours before the map at the top of the article.

Elevated radiation levels detected near wildfires in Chernobyl exclusion zone

The nuclear power plant exploded in 1986

Wildfire burning Chernobyl exclusion zone
Wildfire burning in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photo by Yaroslav Yemelianenko.

Elevated radiation levels have been detected near Ukraine wildfires burning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that exploded in 1986. People are not allowed to live within 19 miles of the closed facility.

Firefighters were dealing with two fires, one about 12 acres and the other approximately 49 acres, according to the latest size estimates. The smaller one is reportedly under control. More than 100 firefighters were aided by air tankers and helicopters.

On his Facebook page, Yaroslav Yemelianenko, posted a photo of a Geiger counter showing higher than normal radiation levels. At one location the “reading was 2.3 when the normal level is 0.14.”

Wildfire burning Chernobyl exclusion zone
A Geiger counter showing an elevated radiation level at a wildfire burning in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photo by Yaroslav Yemelianenko.

Police arrested a person suspected of starting one of the fires, a 27-year-old man from the area who reportedly told police he had set grass and rubbish on fire in three places “for fun”. After he had lit the fires, he said, the wind had picked up and he had been unable to extinguish them.

Wildfire burning Chernobyl exclusion zone
Wildfire burning in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photo by Yaroslav Yemelianenko.
Wildfire burning Chernobyl exclusion zone
Wildfire burning in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photo by Yaroslav Yemelianenko.

Ukrainian Prime Minister says wildfire near Chernobyl contained, but…

Map of fire near Chernobyl
Map of the fire near Chernobyl 4-28-2015. This photo was captured later in the day than the one we posted previously. It shows pyrocumulus clouds created by the fire, indicating extreme fire behavior, rather than smoke from a “contained” fire. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite. NASA photo.

The Prime Minister of the Ukraine was quoted as saying the large fire east of the melted-down and abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor is “localized and contained. Radiation levels are normal”, he told a government meeting on April 29.

On April 28 we published a photo showing the location of the fire about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Chernobyl. It included smoke being pushed to the north and one cloud that could have been a pyrocumulus created by the fire. Today, April 29, we found a satellite photo (above) that was taken later in the day on April 28, that showed massive pyrocumulus clouds, which would indicate extreme fire behavior from a very active fire that was far from being contained.

The blaze, which we estimate to be at least 9,000 acres, is burning in an area contaminated with radioactive particles which could become airborne during a wildfire. It is burning within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the 30 Kilometer Zone, or the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation.

The video below was uploaded April 29, 2015. Here is the description:

Fire engulfed a large sector of woods in the exclusion zone around the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Tuesday.

Other articles on Wildfire Today tagged Chernobyl.

Wildfire burns within 10 miles of Chernobyl nuclear reactor

Map of fire near Chernobyl
Map of fire near Chernobyl 4-28-2015. The red dots represent heat detected by a satellite. NASA image. (click to enlarge)

A wildfire is burning within about 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the Chernobyl nuclear plant that melted down in the Ukraine in 1986. According to NASA imagery, the fire appears to be well within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the 30 Kilometer Zone, or the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation. The area is still heavily contaminated with nuclear radiation and for years officials have been contemplating how to mitigate the potential for a fire in the dead forest, killed by the melt-down, which would release radioactive particles into the smoke and be carried downwind, perhaps for very long distances.

An article at RTnews reports that the Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the fire has burned about 400 hectares (988 acres).

Our extremely rough estimate of the size of the fire based on the satellite imagery is that it has burned about 9,000 acres. When the photo was taken the smoke was being pushed north, at about 90 degrees to the path that would take it closer to the disabled nuclear plant, east of the fire.

Excerpts from the article:

“The forest fire situation around the Chernobyl power plant has worsened,” a statement on Avakov’s Facebook page says.

“The forest fire is heading in the direction of Chernobyl’s installations. Treetop flames and strong gusts of wind have created a real danger of the fire spreading to an area within 20 kilometers of the power plant.

Police and National Guard units are on high alert. Ukraine’s Prime Minister personally went to the affected area to oversee the firefighting. He says the situation is under control, “but this is the biggest fire since 1992.”

The potential danger in this fire comes from the radioactive contaminants the burning plants have absorbed, ecologist Dmitry Shevchenko told RT. “A lot of radionuclides have accumulated in the soil, the trees and other plants. And of course when something like a fire happens, together with the smoke, the radionuclides can travel great distances.”

We have written numerous times about the challenges presented by the contaminated vegetation near Chernobyl. Articles tagged Chernobyl.

Chernobyl’s trees are not decaying normally, increasing the risk of a nuclear wildfire

Chernobyl vegetation
Radioactivity warning sign in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Photo by Timm Suess.

We have written several times about the very unique fire risk around the Chernobyl nuclear plant that melted down in 1986. The forest and towns around it have been designated as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 30 Kilometer Zone, or the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation. If a wildfire breaks out in the area it could expose firefighters to high levels of radiation, as well as residents downwind of the fire.

Motherboard has an article that provides additional information about how dead vegetation in the zone is decaying much more slowly than normal organic material. Below are some excerpts from the article:

…The forests around Chernobyl—the nuclear power plant that exploded 28 years ago—are not decaying properly and should it all catch fire, radioactive material would spread beyond Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, the off-limits 1000 square-miles around the decommissioned facility located 68 miles north of Kiev.

This Zone of Alienation has given environmental scientists much to study, withinsects choosing to not live there and the birds that do live there developing abnormalities like deformed beaks, odd tail feather lengths, and smaller brains. The trees too, have been shady.

Scientists who have been studying the environment inside the Zone of Alienation since 1991 noticed something about these trees, specifically what they described as “a significant accumulation of litter over time” in a study published recently in Oecologia. And by “significant,” they mean the trees are not decomposing and their leaves are just sitting there on the ground, not decomposing either.

The reason for this lack of decay around Chernobyl is that microbes, bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, and other living organisms known as decomposers (because they feed on dead organisms) are just not there and not doing their jobs. Mousseau and his team discovered this after leaving 600 bags of leaves around Chernobyl in 2007. When they collected the bags in 2008, they found that the bags filled with leaves placed in areas with no radiation had decomposed by 70 to 90 percent, but the leaves in areas with radiation? They only decomposed about 40 percent. “There is growing concern that there could be a catastrophic fire in the coming years,” Mousseau told Smithsonian.

There are firefighters stationed around the Zone of Alienation specifically for preventing a forest fire inside, but they’re “obviously not prepared for a major wildfire situation” says SA, with hardly any “professional training, protective suits or breathing apparatuses.” Firefighters currently scout for fires by climbing six watch towers a day, along with the help of one helicopter that is “occasionally available.” They do have a Soviet tank that has been retrofitted with a 20-foot-blade though, to chop down and crush the dead trees that refuse to decay currently littering the roadways.