Wildfires raged out of control Tuesday mere miles from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986, threatening to release dangerous amounts of radiation over northern Ukraine.
Heavy gusts fueled the blaze inside the highly radioactive exclusion zone, the area around the plant that was evacuated after the 1986 blast, just 10 miles from defunct reactors and a mere three miles from a spent fuel repository, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook.
Given the unusual pattern of the blaze, Avakov said an investigation was underway to determine its cause. “There is a reasonable suspicion of an arson attack, as there were outbreaks of the fire in several places on both sides of the river,” he said.
Footage filmed from a helicopter carrying Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk over the area shows thick brown smoke billowing into the sky and an abandoned village in flames. A second helicopter carrying a large bucket is seen dropping water atop the inferno.
Authorities said the fire began around noon local time. Some 200 firefighters with dozens of emergency vehicles were battling the blaze into the night, Ukraine’s emergency services said. The National Guard and the Interior Ministry’s troops were also put on alert in case the fire worsened.
After meeting with emergency workers, Yatsenyuk said the fire had not affected radiation levels in the area — yet.
“I have been informed that the situation is normal,” he told journalists at Kyiv’s Zhuliany airport, according to Interfax news service. “Our emergency services are actively working to stop the fire from spreading.”
Fire hits an abandoned village in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, as fire has engulfed a large sector of woods in the exclusion zone around the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko
Yatsenyuk did, however, admit to Ukraine having a “catastrophic” shortage of emergency equipment to battle the fire.
“We need to have at least 12 helicopters for the Ukrainian State Emergency Service, but we only have two,” he said.
The fire comes just two days after Ukrainians marked the 29th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. When reactor No. 4 exploded, poisonous radiation spewed over large parts of Europe, especially Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The grounds around the power facility remain highly toxic.
The plant’s last reactor was closed in 2000. But personnel still operate in Chernobyl, where work is underway to erect a new containment unit over the crumbling exterior of reactor No. 4.