Disaster danger – wild fires in the Chernobyl closed zone

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Chernobyl fires: how neglected forests, poor coordination and old equipment could spark disaster, GDF Watch, 
 Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert   14/07/2020  
 When fires broke out inside the closed 30-kilometre zone around Chernobyl this spring sending huge amounts of smoke over Kyiv, many feared there would be issues with radiation.

The Ukrainian capital temporarily had the worst air quality in the world as hundreds of firefighters, supported by helicopters and planes, fought the devastating fire. It only went out after several weeks thanks to some help from heavy rainfall.

The European Space Agency used the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite to map the spread of the fires, noting the threat of “increased radiation from the burning of contaminated forest and soil.”

The fires destroyed multiple tourist sites and threatened nuclear waste storage facilities inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – the site of the colossal 1986 nuclear accident.

Luckily radiation levels remained low. France’s Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN) noted the readings ‘did not reveal abnormal values.‘ But those with intimate knowledge of the site fear the fires, and the way they were dealt with, demonstrate just how vulnerable the zone is to potentially catastrophic consequences.

“It was complicated for firefighters to get to certain places inside the zone because state agencies had not taken care of the woods properly,” asserts Yaroslav Yemelianenko, head of the travel company Chernobyl Tour.

“A lot of fallen trees made it possible for the fire to spread quickly in the thick and wild forests. We also saw that there was no planning. Every time someone had to be sent somewhere, the information had to go to the officers, who then would decide to send firefighters and equipment, but when they finally decided to do so, the fire would be five times bigger, and had spread to another place.”

Because of quarantine measures due to COVID-19, many journalists were not able to travel to the zone, but Yemelianenko got there and reported what he saw on Facebook. He says he saw evidence of “ill-equipped firefighters, lousy management, lack of coordination, and disinformation from the government.” He believes more must be done to secure the area, starting with a better fence and more patrolling.

He questions the security of the site, asserting that it is easy for anyone to sneak past the manned checkpoints around the perimeter.

He questions the security of the site, asserting that it is easy for anyone to sneak past the manned checkpoints around the perimeter………

He also alleges that the firefighters were giving only a little water and food while spending too much time exposed to radiation………..

strong winds and a dry winter and spring made it almost impossible to stop the fires, which started in the western part of the closed Chernobyl zone. It quickly spread, partly because of strong winds often outpacing firefighters, but also because of new fires starting in other parts of the area. Pavlova believes that unidentified people started some of the fires inside the zone, and she agrees that the area is vulnerable, and changes need to happen………


While Pavlova was trying to coordinate the efforts from a distance, firefighters fought for weeks against the fires that, according to Chernobyl Tour, destroyed 30 percent of all tourist attractions and large parts of the forests. Euronews spoke to one fireman who worked during this time. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears of losing his job.

He alleges that everything was “chaos” inside the zone when firefighters tried to control the fires, that firefighters’ lives were in danger, and that equipment measuring radioactivity was failing.

“There was no coordination between the different divisions,” he said. ”My team and I were fighting some fire when a fire truck came past yelling ‘guys, get out of here because there is fire coming this way.’ We were not given any instructions from our commander about this. The phones did not work there, the mobile phones did not work – the network was not good. The walkie-talkies were in the truck but they did not reach the headquarters. There was no information. There were no physical maps or GPS navigators. We were just blind.”

He says that in his opinion, firefighters were lucky that rain came and that he fears what would have happened if it hadn’t. He says that his team was fighting a fire at one point, when suddenly another fire broke out behind them. They found out later that another unit was told to fight the fire with fire while they were told to use water and were almost caught in the middle, but that “nobody told me anything.”

He says he was surprised when he heard authorities tell journalists that the fires were under control when they were still going strong. While authorities said that firefighters got plenty of water and food, his team of nine got six litres of water to share between them for three days, and they had to rely on other units and volunteers. He says that he only received food twice during what was around three days in the zone.

“Of course, the lack of coordination posed a risk to us. Even on Facebook, a video on the Boycott of Firefighters of Ukraine page shows how firefighters tried to escape through a burning forest in a fire truck. Of course, the temperature there is too high, and it is simply impossible to be there without protective suits and equipment. You could lose your vehicle and your life there,” he says. http://www.gdfwatch.org.uk/international-media-articles-and-news-stories/

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