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Forest Fires Are Setting Chernobyl’s Radiation Free via the Atlantic


Yoschenko, a Ukrainian radioecologist, had planned the controlled burn to study how radioactive particulates would behave in a fire, and he knew about the risks represented by the nuclear contamination swirling overhead. He prudently scooted to the edge of the forest, donned a gas mask, and began taking photographs. Was it dangerous? Yoschenko shrugs: “Not so much. We were lucky the wind didn’t change direction.”

The forest burned intensely for 90 minutes, releasing cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium-238, -239, and -240 in blasts of smoke and heat. In just one hour, the firefighters—and Yoschenko—could have been exposed to more than triple the annual radiation limit for Chernobyl’s nuclear workers.

“That was crazy,” says Sergiy Zibtsev, a forestry professor at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine. “That place was really contaminated. Yoschenko risked his life to provide new science—just like Marie Curie.”


In recent years, a U.S. Forest Service project has installed five fire-detection cameras within the exclusion zone, provided protective gear and breathing devices to Chernobyl firefighters, and developed a fire-management plan to coordinate fire-suppression efforts. It’s very helpful, Zibtsev said, but it hasn’t solved the equipment shortage. In April, camera traps, which the University of South Carolina professor Timothy Mousseau had set up to monitor wildlife, photographed men fighting fire with wet rags. “No shirts, no masks, no gloves, just wandering around in a burning fire trying to tamp it out,” he told me.


Fire also imposes one more stress on Chernobyl’s ecosystems, a decidedly human wrench thrown into their long recovery from nuclear disaster. Induced by climate change and sparked by human activity, fire here is only slightly more natural than radiation. Persistent and widespread fire may destroy soil organics and radically redistribute the accumulated radionuclides, Yoschenko said, altering soil chemistry. Changes in soil chemistry will alter plants, which in turn will affect the food chain and animals dependent on it. And larger, more intense fires could destroy the forests entirely, obliterating their ability to keep what’s in Chernobyl in Chernobyl. “Keeping forests healthy is the main ingredient to preventing the migration of radionuclides outside the zone,” Zibtsev told me.

For now, Chernobyl’s forests and grasslands are continuing to process cesium, strontium, and other radionuclides. Even the roots of the contorted trees in the Red Forest are taking up radionuclides, holding and stabilizing them in an ecosystem’s gift to the humans who created these contaminants. That process promises to continue—at least until the August fire season gets underway.

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