Scientists measure disaster after record fires in Chernobyl

“This forest will never be reborn,” regrets scientist Oleksandre Borsouk, walking on yellow earth among the charred pine trunks and the smell of burning in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl power plant after record fires.

These unprecedented fires ravaged a quarter of this area, AFP told Borsouk, one of the managers of the nature reserve that occupies most of this vast territory.

Still contaminated by radiation, this largely neglected area surrounds the damaged power station, the scene of the worst nuclear accident in history, in a radius of 30 kilometers.

In early April, wildfires that broke out there took on an unprecedented scale. Encouraged by strong winds and especially unusually dry weather, the fires lasted until mid-May, stopping, according to Greenpeace, less than two kilometers from the containment dome that protects its damaged reactor.

Despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters, more than 66,000 hectares of land (a quarter of the exclusion zone), including 42,000 hectares of forest, have been ravaged. Authorities this week opened the media to the affected areas for the first time.

“It was the biggest fire” since the 1986 accident, said Denys Vychnevsky, a scientific officer with the reserve.

If the disaster did not, according to Kiev, cause an increase in radioactivity, it was a serious blow to the local ecosystem, which had flourished since the 1986 disaster followed by the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants and the cessation of most human activities.

Heat and dryness

“The pine forests have suffered the most,” says Borsouk. Affected by flames whose temperatures can reach “700 to 800 ° C”, these trees aged 30 or 40, even 90 years will continue to die for another “two to three years”, he adds.

If the vegetation will eventually grow back, the pines will naturally be replaced by deciduous trees (birch, aspen …), more resistant to flames, explains the scientist, according to which a dozen abandoned villages have also been destroyed.

Wildlife has also suffered the blow: large animals – wolves, moose or lynx – managed to escape, but small mammals such as hares and snakes perished, says Vychnevsky.

But since the end of the fires, “we have observed positive trends”: animals and birds are returning to the affected areas, adds the biologist.

Police said the fire was caused by a young resident of the Chernobyl area who said he set grass on fire “for fun”.

But scientists are pointing the finger at the climate change that led to an unusually hot and dry winter with only 63% of precipitation compared to the norm, creating favorable conditions for the spread of fire.

“In the future, with such climate change, this will pose a threat to us,” said Vychnevsky. “We will have to reorganize the entire system of observation, prevention and emergency response to these kinds of fires, specific to the United States and southern Europe,” he warns.

A reactor at the Chernobyl plant exploded on April 26, 1986, contaminating, according to some estimates, up to three-quarters of Europe. The plant, which had remained in operation, closed permanently in 2000.

In recent years, the site has also become a major tourist attraction attracting tens of thousands of visitors from around the world.

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