Police in Kyiv announced on Monday they have arrested a 27-year-old man for deliberately starting a huge fire in the Exclusion Zone around the decommissioned nuclear plant at Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
The forest fire erupted on Saturday near the uninhabited village of Vladimirovka, located inside the thousand-square-mile Exclusion Zone, and spread to cover more than 50 acres. Firefighters reported a substantial spike in radiation levels due to the blaze, notching over 2.3 microsieverts per hour when the normal background level in the area is about 0.14.
Over a hundred firefighters and several aircraft were dispatched to fight two separate blazes as fears mounted the radiation spike would reach inhabited towns or even the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, which is about 60 miles from Chernobyl. As of Tuesday morning, no radiation threat to inhabited areas had been detected.
Radiation in the Exclusion Zone spikes during fires because some pockets of plant life are still irradiated from the Chernobyl disaster, so the smoke and ash produced when it burns contains radioactive particles. Ecological inspection chief Yegor Firsov noted there have been persistent problems with arson in the area and denounced such practices as “barbaric.”
Police said the man accused of starting the blaze is a resident of the village of Rahivka who said he decided to set a pile of garbage and grass on fire “for fun.” He has not been formally charged yet but could face fines plus up to five years in prison if convicted of destroying forestry. Some Ukrainian lawmakers believe the penalty should be substantially increased to discourage people from starting fires near the Exclusion Zone.
Firefighters said the smaller of two blazes springing from the arson incident has been extinguished, but they are still working on controlling the larger forest fire.
The situation is bitterly ironic for people living near the Exclusion Zone because they find themselves haunted by the radioactive ghost of Chernobyl while they are forced to deal with the new Chernobyl: the deadly coronavirus unleashed upon the world by the Chinese Communist Party. Firsov gave assurances that residents of the Kyiv suburbs can safely open their windows to get fresh air while quarantined due to the pandemic.