YAROSLAV EMELIANENKO/AFP/Getty Images

A forest fire is currently burning near Chernobyl. What will happen if it gets there?

The Chernobyl nuclear accident happened 34 years ago this month, and now a new disaster could be bearing down on the region. A few weeks ago forest fires started burning inside the exclusion zone, and the flames are burning dangerously close to the abandoned nuclear plant. Radiation in the area has already skyrocketed due to the fires, prompting considerable concerns about what might happen if they continue to progress toward the most radioactive regions of the disaster site.

According to a report from CNN, the fire first started near the village of Vladimirovka on April 4, believed to be lit by a single suspect who set grass on fire "for fun" but lost control of the flame. While fires in the region are relatively common, this one poses a unique threat as it burns closer to the radioactive areas near Chernobyl’s former plant and nuclear waste sites. The wildfire started to spread quickly, aided by winds that carried it into the exclusion zone. Nearly two weeks later and the flames have yet to be put out, despite messaging from the Ukrainian government suggesting the situation was under control.

Ukraine's emergency services claimed to have contained the main fire just one day after it began, but the flames have scorched more than 8,600 acres of land since then. Kateryna Pavlova, the head of an organization that oversees Chernobyl, told the New York Times over the weekend, “At the moment, we cannot say the fire is contained.” As the fire has burned, it has set off fear about increased radiation levels in the region. A video posted on social media by Yegor Firsov, the head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service, showed radiation at 16 times above normal levels near the fire.

The initially optimistic interpretation of how well the fire has been controlled has created a standoff between activists and concerned citizens who are watching the flames press dangerously closer to areas central to the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which remains highly radioactive over three decades after the disaster occurred. Environmental watchdogs tracking the fire, including Greenpeace, warn that the flames are now just over one mile away from Pripyat, an abandoned town that once served the plant and stored dangerous waste, and is moving “rapidly,” according to experts in the region. A second fire that splintered from the original as winds carried the flames is also believed to be within about a half-mile of the defunct plant itself. According to a report from Reuters, others in the region — including a Chernobyl tour operator — have also described the situation as harrowing, claiming the fire is rapidly expanding and pushing closer to “the most highly active radiation waste" found in the exclusion zone.

As the fires continue to push toward the radioactive landmarks, the Ukrainian government has told its citizens not to worry. "There is no threat to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, waste fuel storage or other critical facilities," Volodymyr Demchuk, a senior official in Ukraine's emergency service, said in a video statement Monday. Despite these assurances from the government, experts are less convinced that the fires and potential radiation has fully been contained.

"I suspect the radiation levels may be raised mostly locally due to the responded residual radioactivity," Shih-Yew Chen, of the Master's Health Physics program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, tells Mic. He notes that it's unclear if radiation will spread over a "large area" far beyond the areas surrounding Chernobyl — though there are heavily populated cities that could potentially be at risk.

Tim Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, tells Mic that people living south of Chernobyl, including the nearly three million people living in Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv, could experience air pollution and potentially be exposed to radioactive contaminants. "Given prevailing winds ... Kyiv is suffering very hazardous levels of air pollution in addition to any risks associated with the radionuclides that are undoubtedly also being blown towards populated regions," he says.

Air pollution was already a growing issue in Kyiv long before the latest spate of fires started near Chernobyl. Last summer, the country's emergency service reported that air pollution had exceeded five times its normal levels — the result of burning fossil fuels, along with the city's hot weather and lack of wind. The situation got so bad last fall that smog caused extremely low visibility and forced flights to be delayed out of the city's Boryspil International Airport. Mousseau notes that because of the poor air conditions in the city, "N95 masks were rarely available even before the COVID-19 pandemic," so new concerns about air pollution resulting from the Chernobyl fires are likely to put people even more at risk. "Air quality in the city has become dangerous to anyone with any kind of lung issues and could be extremely hazardous for anyone infected with the SARS-Cov-2 virus," he says.

The ongoing attempts to deal with coronavirus may also hamper the ability to fully address the fires, according to Mousseau, who explains that the pandemic "has paralyzed much of the country's infrastructure." He says it's "unclear what impact ongoing self-quarantine and sheltering-in-place policies have had on the already short-staffed Chernobyl fire fighting infrastructure," though notes that firefighters are likely to experience more hazards than others, potentially "inhaling the radioactive contaminants" as they are tasked with fighting the flames.

Mousseau notes that the current fires pressing toward the abandoned Chernobyl power plant "pose an especially dangerous threat" because of events from previous years, including other fires, large fuel loads present in the region, and dry winters that have created conditions that make it easier for the fire to spread. Professor Chen warned that even if these fires are contained, they are unlikely to be the last. "In general, the unfinished cleanup areas from a nuclear disaster tend to be forgotten by the society until something stirs it up again to serve as an unpleasant reminder," he says. "These cases including the Chernobyl fire likely will recur repeatedly over time. Not sure what the authorities can or will do."