Radioactive Chernobyl forest fires: a ticking time bomb via Greenpeace

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.

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.


“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.

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.

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.

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