Suppressing a fire in Chernobyl’s radioactive forest

Last month we wrote about the forest surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine; the reactor that melted down and burned April 26, 1986. The area is still heavily contaminated with nuclear radiation and the officials there 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. They even consulted with an Oregon logger about options for harvesting the radioactive trees so that they could be used as fuel in what might be the world’s largest “closed loop” biomass plant, gasifying wood to create synthesis gas (or “syngas”) in order to generate electricity.

A new article in The Daily Climate looks more at the firefighting aspect, should a wildfire occur in the dead forest before any of it is harvested and removed. Here are some excerpts from the article:


“…A 2002 test fire offers insight on the scope of the radioactive risk. Set to assess plume and radionuclide behavior, the two-acre ground fire near the failed power plant released up to five percent of the cesium and strontium in the biomass. A high-intensity crown fire would release much higher amounts than burning needles and leaf litter, said Vasyl Yoschenko, who set the fire and heads the radioecological monitoring laboratory at the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology. Other studies predict that the fine particles emitted from a forest fire could be transported hundreds of miles away.


After years of anxiety, the results of the study surprised [Chad Oliver, director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry at Yale University, who has studied the region since 2005]. People living outside the exclusion zone would not have to be evacuated. There would be no cause for panic in Kiev, he said.

But the predictions for [Nikolay] Ossienko and his fellow firefighters are not so rosy. They would be exposed to radiation beyond all acceptable levels. In addition to “normal” external radiation, they would be inhaling radionuclides in the smoke they breathe – being irradiated both outside and inside.

On top of the significant health risks, these crews are utterly unequipped to fight large fires, Zibtsev said. At Ossienko’s fire station near the Belarus border, four well-maintained fire trucks gleam inside a shed, all ready to roll. But the fire lanes designed to get them to a blaze quickly are untended, often blocked by fallen trees and brush. Ossienko is proud of the Soviet tank modified for firefighting with a 20-foot blade like a gigantic pointed cow-catcher. He says it can “crush trees and brush – anything.” But reporting smokes by climbing fire towers is no one’s idea of an early-warning system, and the lone helicopter occasionally available lacks even a bucket for dropping water on a fire.”

Preventing fires in Chernobyl’s radioactive forest

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union, now the Ukraine, melted down and burned April 26, 1986, radiation spread not only into the atmosphere and across the continent, but much of it settled downwind. Near the facility, the radiation killed the pine trees right away over a large area. The rusty-orange color of the dead trees led to the nickname “The Red Forest”.

Red Forest at Chernobyl
Red Forest at Chernobyl

The Red Forest is among the world’s most radioactive places. If the area had burned in a wildfire, the radiation would be released again into the atmosphere and transported for many miles by the heated air in the convection column. To reduce the hazard, the trees in the Red Forest were cut and then buried, but now officials are concerned about the water table being contaminated. The area bordering the Red Forest, as well as the Red Forest itself, is called the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), and still has a great deal of radiation contamination. The government is looking for ways to prevent it from burning, but they are leaning away from the concept of burying the trees.

Now, surprisingly, an Oregon logger enters the picture. Mike Wiedeman, president of a decades-old family logging business based in Enterprise has been talking with officials in the Ukraine about harvesting the trees so that they can be used as fuel in what might be the world’s largest “closed loop” biomass plant, gasifying wood to create synthesis gas (or “syngas”) in order to generate electricity. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Wallowa County Chieftain:


“Wiedeman has grown increasingly interested in the CEZ, and the possibility of working there on a long-term basis, ever since someone in Ukraine’s private sector approached him about becoming involved in a major project that would begin forest-thinning in earnest and convert the logged timber to energy. By mid-October, Mike Wiedeman was aloft over the scene, assessing it from a helicopter.


After he returned home, his discussions continued with the various players and likely players in the logging and energy project, and early this year the Wiedemans formed a new LLC in Oregon, International Forestry Solutions, through which they hope to perform work in the CEZ.


In addition to the energy company that will be a key to the overall project, another significant player will be the forestry side’s equipment supplier. Mike Wiedeman thinks this distinction should bring considerable prestige. “There’s tremendous PR value of being the chosen equipment to be used in the toughest environment on the planet,” he said.

And in the CEZ, there’s no such thing as sending equipment out for repair. Any machine that enters the irradiated zone is required to remain there – in theory, forever. This is why the zone is still littered with the hulking remains of all vehicles that were in it when the 1986 crisis unfolded. The zone also lacks a decent network of logging roads.

There’s also the matter of training the people who will work there. While Bryan Wiedeman says he’s looking forward to fine-tuning protocols to help ensure worker safety in the irradiated environment – an appreciable challenge – he adds that he and other loggers he knows can’t seem to help but be drawn to the adventure of it all. “It’s like logging on Mars,” he said.”

Wildfire news, July 28, 2011

Wildfires may redistribute radioactive fallout debris

The web site has posted a document that contains information about how radioactive fallout debris from nuclear bomb testing and the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant can be transported initially to remote locations, and years later be re-suspended into the air during a wildfire.

Here is an excerpt from the site:

Over the past two weeks, a Chernobyl Reloaded has been in the making, thanks to wildfires that are breaking out in parts of Russia that received some of the greatest deposition levels from Chernobyl fallout. Long-lived radioactive isotopes, such as Cesium-137 and Strontium-90, which are deposited from fallout events such as nuclear weapons tests and large-scale radiological accidents, tend to reside in the top few inches of the soil and also become lodged in vegetation and dead biomass. Hot burning wildfires – such as a record-breaking, large wildfire in 2007 that lifted legacy fallout radiation north of Milford, Utah – can suspend back into the air up to 100% of this lingering radioactivity where winds can carry these carcinogens.

Followup on the lead plane photos

After we posted photos of lead plane 6-5 on July 19 and July 26, we received a message from Jonas Doherty, who provided some interesting details about the photos. Here is an excerpt:

I was the pilot flying the lead plane when you took those pictures. What makes it better is the fact that that actual mission was my final evaluation flight in order to become fully qualified for the lead plane mission. I have been training for the past 1.5 years, the final checkride consisted of 9 seperate missions over the course of a week, the whoopup being the last. It means so much to me to have the article that you wrote as a memory of that day. Your pictures are incredible, and I would love to see more if you would be gracious enough to share them with me.

Just a couple things to clarify regarding the article (as though they matter.) We were actually dispatched out of Silver City, NM. Also, the 5 aircraft that the BLM operates have smoke, but none of the 14 USFS aircraft have it…yet, that is.

Whoopup fire Lead 6-5 and Tanker 45
Lead 6-5 and Tanker 45 on the WhoopUp fire near Newcastle, WY, July 18, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert

We also heard from Chuck Greenwood, the owner of the Greenwood Group, who told us that his company has the contract to supply the lead planes for the U.S. Forest Service. The pilots are USFS employees.

Eagle fire: activity “minimal”

The Eagle fire burning between Warner Springs and Borrego Springs in southern California, has slowed. At the end of the day on Wednesday, CalFire called fire activity on the fire “minimal”. As of Thursday morning it has burned 14,100 acres and has 20 helicopters and over 2,000 personnel assigned. Fire investigators determined that the cause of the fire was arson.

DC-10 worked the Eagle fire on Wednesday

CalFire activated one of the DC-10 air tankers for the Eagle fire in southern California yesterday. Air Tanker 910 flew 5 sorties and dropped 58,000 gallons of retardant on Wednesday.

Rick Hatton, the CEO and President of the company that operates the DC-10’s, 10 Tanker Air Carrier, told Wildfire Today that the aircraft was activated by CalFire on a 5-day Call When Needed (CWN) contract which specifies that any activation will be for a 5-day minimum. The USFS would not allow any minimum number of hours or days in their CWN contract with the company, so the agency apparently expects to use it for one drop, or more, and then shut it down. Mr. Hatton said it will be difficult to continue to operate their two DC-10 air tankers if they are only occasionally used on fires. They are single-purpose aircraft and can’t be diverted like helicopters can to other uses such as law enforcement or news.

Mr. Hatton said that yesterday tanker 910 refilled at Victorville airport, even though CalFire removed all of their property from the reload base on June 30. What remained was the actual reloading equipment, the tanks, mixing equipment, piping, and hoses, which belong to Phos-Chek. Personnel were dispatched to operate it, and they reloaded the tanker five times on Wednesday, each time with 11,600 gallons of Phos-Chek.

Two DC-10 air tankers
File photo of air tankers 910 and 911. Photo: 10 Tanker Air Carrier

CalFire reportedly likes to use the DC-10’s on fires, but the state’s budget problems required that they make $34 million worth of reductions in their fire program this year, including:

  • 730 fewer seasonal firefighters
  • Reducing the staffing on engines from four to three
  • Cancellation of the exclusive use contract for the DC-10 air tanker

Russian fires burn areas contaminated by Chernobyl nuclear disaster

On August 6 Wildfire Today reported that the government of Russia had issued warnings about a potential danger if any of the hundreds of fires in their country burned lands that were contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Now there is a report that at least 28 fires covering 269 hectares (664 acres) occurred on the radioactive lands in the Bryansk region. A second report says 39 square kilometers (9,600 acres) have burned in areas polluted with radiation.

Radiation experts from Moscow conducted an evaluation of the area and concluded there has been no increase in radiation levels. But earlier this month when a wildfire burned through a Russian military base, their defense ministry initially denied reports of the fire and at first even denied that the Navy base existed. Later Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office confirmed that at least 13 hangars containing aircraft had been destroyed in a wildfire at a base outside Moscow on July 29.

In the United States, we heard similar reports from the government in the days following the 9/11 attack in 2001. Here is an excerpt from

The destruction of the twin towers shot pulverized asbestos, lead, concrete, glass, and other debris into the air throughout lower Manhattan.


A week after the attack, the EPA announced that the air near ground zero was safe to breathe, but the agency did not have enough information to make such a guarantee, the inspector general’s report said.

“Christie Whitman was too premature to say it was safe,” Cahill said Tuesday. “I think the EPA should have known. The EPA had its own reports saying it could be dangerous. Why didn’t the EPA bring in their own people from all over the country? They could have. Never thought of it. They did later. But not in the time that mattered.”

The White House “convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones” by having the National Security Council control EPA communications, the inspector general’s report found.

Many firefighters and others who worked at the 9/11 site have suffered from serious respiratory problems, which probably were caused by breathing the air at the disaster site.

Wildfires in Russia may disperse radioactive particles from Chernobyl nuclear disaster

smoke in Moscow
A woman wears a mask in central Moscow to protect herself from smog caused by fires outside the city. Photograph: Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters

The Russian government has warned residents that the wildfires burning through their country may pose a nuclear threat by releasing radioactive particles contained in trees and plants following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The government claims that 160,000 people are fighting the numerous fires, but they appear to be losing the battle as additional fires worsen the situation, leaving at least 52 people dead and more than 3,500 homeless as entire villages are consumed in fires.

About 140 flights were delayed on Friday at the Moscow airport when smoke from the fires reduced the visibility at times to as little as 1,100 feet.

The Guardian reports that the Russian government is employing questionable tactics to put the best light on the wildfire situation:

United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party which dominates parliament, has boasted of sending volunteers to help extinguish the fires. But that claim was thrown into doubt yesterday when the party was accused of doctoring a photograph placed on its website.

A sharp-eyed blogger noticed that the picture showing volunteers apparently wrestling with a piece of timber in a smoky wood had been created in 2008 and altered in Photoshop last Saturday. The smoke, he claimed, had been added for effect.

United Russia immediately removed the picture but did not respond to requests for comment.