Chernobyl forest fire triggers radiation spike around nuclear plant

Click to play video: 'Firefighters battle wildfire in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone'
Firefighters battle wildfire in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
WATCH: The wildfire began in Ukraine's Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on Apr. 4 – Apr 6, 2020

Radiation levels near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor have spiked to well above normal as two fires tear through the irradiated forests around the infamous facility.

Ukrainian officials have one simple message for their citizens: This is fine.

In other words, there is no immediate threat to human life, despite elevated radiation readings around the blaze.

The forest fires broke out Saturday near Volodymyrivka in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a vast stretch of land that has been quarantined since 1986 due to heightened radiation levels caused by the nuclear meltdown that year. Ukraine has dispatched more than 100 firefighters to battle the fires, which have scorched approximately 25 hectares of forest around the nuclear plant.

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Radiation levels have soared to approximately 16 times higher than normal, according to Geiger counter readings posted on Facebook by Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service.

“There is bad news,” he wrote on Sunday. “Radiation is above normal in the fire’s centre.”

In this photo made on Saturday, April 4, 2020, an aerial view of a forest fire burning near the village of Volodymyrivka in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine. Emergency Situation Ministry via AP

The Geiger counter reading usually shows 0.14 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h), but readings in the area on Saturday displayed 2.3 μSv/h, he said.

“This is only within the area of the fire outbreak,” Firsov wrote.

Another reading taken near the fire showed 0.33 μSv/h, which is still high but below the maximum safe amount of 0.5 μSv/h under Ukrainian guidelines.

Firsov said ignorant citizens likely started the blazes by setting fire to grass in the area.

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The Chernobyl exclusion zone spans 2,600 square kilometres of land that was blasted with nuclear radiation after the disaster in April 1986. The exclusion zone remains largely unpopulated, although approximately 200 stubborn individuals remain in the area despite orders to avoid it.

Photos from the area show the fires destroyed several homes left vacant by the 1986 evacuations.

An uninhabited house burns in the middle of a forest fire near the village of Volodymyrivka, in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, on Sunday, April 5, 2020. AP Photo/Yaroslav Yemelianenko

The Chernobyl power plant ceased all operations in 2000, and its ruined reactor has since been encased in a massive protective dome. No one is allowed to live within 30 kilometres of the facility.

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Firsov said such fires occur in the surrounding exclusion zone every year, but there is currently no radiation threat to citizens in Kyiv.

“I want to calm you down,” Firsov wrote on Monday. “The fire in the exclusion zone … has not affected the radiation situation in Kyiv and the suburbs.”

He added a note of comfort for all citizens who are hunkered down indoors during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.

“Don’t be afraid to open your windows and air the premises during quarantine,” Firsov wrote.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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