Fires are burning in Chernobyl's Red ForestThe forest fire in the Chernobyl exclusion zone which began on 4 April was still burning on 14 April, Ukrainian media reported, raising concerns about a possible increase in radiation from the smoke as the fire spread to the town of Pripyat.

The fire initially affected 20 hectares of forest near the village of Vladimirovka Kotovsky but spread to more than 100 hectares. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine reported that firefighters, equipment and vehicles were involved in combatting the fire as well as An-32P aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters.

While the radiation situation in Kiev remained normal at that time, the radiation background in the centre of forest fire exceeded normal levels 16.5 times, according to the acting Head of the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine Egor Firsov. He published a video of a radiation monitor taken at the site of the fire showing the indicator increasing to 2.3 microsieverts, compared with a norm of 0.14 microsievert.

Firsov said putting out the fire “remains difficult”. The smoke caused smog and air pollution in the capital and surrounding settlements.

Ukraine's State Scientific and Technical Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (SSTC NRS) said its emergency preparedness and radiation monitoring department had conducted measurements of the radionuclide content in the air.

On 5 April, the State Emergency Service reported that there was no open fire, but that some areas continued to smoulder. However the fires reignited, and on 13 April, Yaroslav Emelyanenko, a member of the public council at the state agency for the management of the exclusion zone, said on his Facebook page that the fire had reached the former nuclear power plant operators’ town of Pripyat and was 2 kilometres from the Podlesny radioactive waste storage facilities, which contains the most highly radioactive waste from the Chernobyl zone. The fire reached the left bank of the Pripyat River and was approaching nuclear power plant.  Local media said it had destroyed the old cemeteries, forests, swamps, and a total of 12 former villages.

In Kiev, SSTC NRS said high levels of caesium-137 had been recorded in the air for a short period while the State Service for Emergency Situations said that the radiation background was within normal limits and "does not exceed natural background values”.

Emelyanenko commented: “There are two options: either the real situation is not reported to the government, or they have chosen a policy of silence.” He appealed to the President’s Office, directly to the head of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky, Prime Minister Denis Shmygal and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov urging them to tell citizens what is really happening with the fire.

The Russia branch of Greenpeace said the fires were much bigger than the authorities acknowledged with the largest fire covering 34,000 hectares, while a second fire just a kilometre from the former plant was 12,000 hectares in area.

Photo: The Red Forest near Chernobyl nuclear power plant