Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2020.

Double Danger

The largest wildfire in decades burned through the exclusion zone around the abandoned Chernobyl plant, raising radiation levels


As Ukraine, like the rest of the world, was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in April, the Eastern European country had to also contend with another potential health hazard: elevated radiation levels triggered by a wildfire burning near the shuttered Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The plant exploded in 1986, leading to the worst known nuclear disaster in history. Today, the abandoned plant is surrounded by an exclusion zone covering about 1,000 square miles, where public access is restricted and no one is allowed to live.

The exclusion zone frequently experiences wildfires, but the one that burned from April 4–14 was the largest the area has seen in decades, according to news reports. The Ukraine Exclusion Zone Management Agency said that by April 11, the fire had torched over 8,600 acres and prompted the response of about 400 firefighters, 100 fire engines, and several helicopters, according to the New York Times. Aided by rain, firefighters were able to get the blaze under control April 14, but not before radiation levels at one point spiked to 16 times above normal on the fireground. The fire also came alarmingly close to the abandoned Chernobyl plant itself, at one point reportedly burning about a mile away from the site.

“It was a unique and scary fire in terms of firefighters potentially being exposed to radioactive ash,” said Lucian Deaton, a program manager in NFPA’s Wildfire Division. Deaton said he had seen comments online from firefighters in European countries outside Ukraine who expressed fear over the idea of responding to a wildfire under such circumstances. “I think for them the biggest fear is not knowing the condition of the fuel that’s burning,” he said. “It’s not about tactics. They would attack it the same way they attack any wildfire, but it’s a concern over what it is that’s burning and knowing, with Chernobyl, that the fuel is radioactive.”

Because the soil and vegetation in the exlusion zone is still irradiated from the explosion, when it burns, the resulting ash is also radioactive.

NFPA Journal sent an email to the Exclusion Zone Management Agency asking if firefighters battling the April blaze needed to wear special personal protective equipment, but it wasn’t answered before the magazine’s deadline. In photos taken during the blaze, some firefighters appeared to be wearing respirator masks—but that could be a result of the coronavirus pandemic, not because of concerns over exposure to radioactive ash. Deaton theorized that outfitting wildland firefighters with radiation-blocking gear could be impossible because suits made for that purpose are laced with heavy, non-breathable materials like rubber and lead and would get far too hot for firefighters working in close proximity to heat and flames. “It’s a lesson we learned with soldiers during the Gulf War,” he said. “If you can’t wear them in the desert, you definitely can’t wear them in a wildfire.”

On April 17, Reuters reported that air pollution levels in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev, located about 60 miles south of Chernobyl, were the highest in the world—a result of the fires. Radiation levels in the city, however, remained normal.

All NFPA Journal content now translated into Spanish

In an effort to bring more fire, life, and electrical safety information to Spanish speakers around the world, NFPA announced earlier this year that every issue of NFPA Journal will now be published digitally in Spanish. The new web content will be known as NFPA Journal en Español.

NFPA Journal, the award-winning membership magazine of NFPA, is published six times per year and is available in print, web, and digital formats.

The change replaces Journal Latinoamericano, a print publication that for over 20 years has included selections of articles from NFPA Journal and was circulated four times a year.

To read or sign up for updates from NFPA Journal en Español, visit

China wildfire kills 18 firefighters one year after 27 die in similar blaze

In late March, a wildland blaze in the Sichuan Province region in southwest China killed 18 firefighters and one forest guide. The fire occurred a year after a similar incident in the region killed 30 people.

The most recent fire started on a farm and, fed by strong winds, spread through roughly 2,500 acres of the mountainous region, Wildfire Today reported. In March 2019, 27 firefighters and three civilians died in a wildfire that consumed less than 100 acres of land in the province. No reports have shed any light on how exactly dozens of firefighters died battling these two, relatively small wildland blazes.

'HIGH RISK'  An estimated 45 Chinese wildland firefighters have died battling wildfires in the past two years, and experts warn reforestation efforts in the country will lead to more wildfires in the near future. (Getty Images)

While no global database exists on firefighter fatalities, the incidents likely rank among the country’s deadliest wildfires in history. In the United States, for example, only three recorded wildfires have killed more than 15 firefighters, according to NFPA data.

An article published by Bloomberg in April painted a chilling picture of wildfire in China, which is pursuing widespread reforestation efforts—and increasing forest fuel loads as a result. “China has entered a period with high fire risk,” the country’s forest service warned in a statement, according to Bloomberg. Add to that a warming climate, and these larger swaths of forested land are beginning to burn more frequently and with greater ferocity.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images.