Radioactive Chernobyl forest fires: a ticking time bomb

For five years now I’ve been a member of the professional firefighting group of Greenpeace Russia staff members that is supported by well trained volunteers and I’ve travelled thousands of kilometres across Russia to extinguish fires. Firefighting is always dangerous, but when it happens in a radiation-contaminated area the stakes are much higher. 

Forest fires in the contaminated Bryanks region. 07/04/2016 © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceForest fires in the contaminated Bryansk region.

In areas contaminated by Chernobyl, wildfires are a common occurrence. Without good government management, these areas flame up every spring due to bonfires made by locals, and the fires can cover thousands of hectares. With the climate getting warmer and dryer, these fires have become more frequent and devastating in recent years.

Firefighters tackle the flames in Bryansk region. 07/04/2016 © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceEvery spring, fires start in the forests and fields of the heavily contaminated area.

 A woman stands by a burnt house in Stary Vyshkov village. 08/04/2016 © Greenpeace / Liza UdilovaThis house in Stary Vyshkov village was burnt because of grass fires started by locals.

Right now, I’m working near the village of Stary Vyshkov. Despite being declared an evacuation zone due to high contamination, it’s still home to 300 people. There are millions of people like these villagers, living in contaminated areas and always at risk. Our team, in cooperation with local emergency services and volunteers, prevents grassfires from hitting contaminated peatland at the edge of the village. 

Greenpeace firefighters work hard to stop the spreading of the fires. 07/04/2016 © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceGreenpeace firefighters work hard to stop the spreading of the fires.

I and the other firefighters do this work because the government fails to protect its citizens. While the authorities’ management of forests across Russia is weak, the problem here is worse because they ignore the high levels of contamination. These areas need a special regime of fire prevention and safety rules.

“Chernobyl-contaminated forests are ticking time bombs,” Ludmila Komogortseva tells me. A scientist and ex-deputy on Bryansk regional council – an area highly contaminated by Chernobyl – Ludmila knows the risks of Chernobyl’s fallout well.  

“Woods and peat accumulate radiation and every moment, every grass burning, every dropped cigarette or camp fire can spark a new disaster,” she says. 

Firefighters work to bring the fires under control. 07/04/2016 © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceFirefighters work to bring the flames under control.

A Greenpeace member wearing protective clothing holds a geiger counter. 07/04/2016  © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceA Greenpeace member wearing protective clothing holds a geiger counter. 

Peat in Bryansk marshes has collected enough radioactivity to be considered radioactive waste. During a fire, radionuclides like caesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium rise into the air and travel with the wind. This is a health concern because when these unstable atoms are inhaled, people become internally exposed to radiation.

Geiger counter showing radiation levels. 07/04/2016  © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceGeiger counter showing radiation levels.

These radiation risks make fighting wildfires all the more difficult. Some areas I’ve worked in are so contaminated that no protective outfit will fully block the radiation we’re exposed to. That is why fighting fires is sometimes not a sustainable option and prevention is much more valuable.

The reconnaissance plan is based on satellite data – but still we need to go out to the field to check. We usually start looking for fires in the mornings, but we rarely need our eyes to find any. You smell the smoke first. That leads you to burnt and smoldering fields.  

The government’s lax attitude also puts its own firefighters at risk – they aren’t even provided the same safety gear that volunteers crowdfund or buy for themselves.

The forest inspector and ranger Nikolay Makarenko told us that his department’s task is to only report on wildfires in Bryansk, but because it takes such a long time for the fire brigade to arrive, the inspectors try to combat the danger themselves, mostly protected only by their everyday jacket and boots. Once the fire was so big he worked for two days straight and was forced to sleep in the contaminated forest. 

A Zlynka town forestry officer at a picnic area in a highly contaminated forest. 08/04/2016  © Greenpeace / Liza UdilovaA Zlynka town forestry officer at a picnic area in a highly contaminated forest.

Officials are often reluctant even to admit there is a fire that needs to be put out. Last year, it took us two months of campaigning to make them eliminate a big peat fire.

The government is reckless and does not give proper protection to people living in contaminated areas. They are cutting protection programmes that ensure much needed monitoring, health treatments and uncontaminated food and they do not have an adequate solution to peat fires in these areas. 

A Ministry of Emergency officer talks to a local woman to gather information. 07/04/2016  © Vladislav Zalevskiy / GreenpeaceA Ministry of Emergency officer talks to a local woman to gather information. 

Please stand in solidarity with people like us trying to protect communities from the ongoing risk from Chernobyl. Tell the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia to give proper support and make sure another disaster like Chernobyl does not happen again. Nuclear energy should be buried in the past.

Anton Beneslavsky is a Forest campaigner and firefighter with Greenpeace Russia

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