"Imagine going to bed at night knowing something like this could happen," said Chad Oliver, director of the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry at Yale University, who has studied the region since 2005.
Oliver, Zibtsev and others began calling attention to the potential for another Chernobyl disaster at variety international and scientific conferences, but the issue drew little more than finger pointing. Until their 2011 study, no one had assessed the human health effects of a catastrophic wildfire in the exclusion zone.
A worst-case scenario
Led by Oliver and Zibtsev, scientists at several institutions in Europe and North America analyzed a worst-case scenario: A very hot fire that burns for five days, consumes everything in its path, and sends the smoke 60 miles south to Kiev. A separate worst-case study is underway looking at the risks for Sweden, Finland and other European countries heavily impacted by the 1986 explosion.
Women in their 20s living just outside the zone face the highest risk from exposure to radioactive smoke, the 2011 study found: 170 in 100,000 would have an increased chance of dying of cancer. Among men farther away in Kiev, 18 in 100,000 20-year-olds would be at increased risk of dying of cancer. These estimates pale in comparison to those from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, which predict between 4,000 and over a million eventual deaths from radiation exposure.
Instead, the greatest danger from forest fire for most people would be consuming foods exposed to smoke. Milk, meat and other products would exceed safe levels, the 2011 study predicts. The Ukrainian government would almost certainly have to ban consumption of foodstuffs produced as far as 90 miles from the fire.
No need for evacuation
After years of anxiety, the results of the study surprised Oliver. People living outside the exclusion zone would not have to be evacuated. There would be no cause for panic in Kiev, he said.
But the predictions for Ossienko and his fellow firefighters are not so rosy. They would be exposed to radiation beyond all acceptable levels. In addition to "normal" external radiation, they would be inhaling radionuclides in the smoke they breathe – being irradiated both outside and inside.
On top of the significant health risks, these crews are utterly unequipped to fight large fires, Zibtsev said. At Ossienko's fire station near the Belarus border, four well-maintained fire trucks gleam inside a shed, all ready to roll. But the fire lanes designed to get them to a blaze quickly are untended, often blocked by fallen trees and brush. Ossienko is proud of the Soviet tank modified for firefighting with a 20-foot blade like a gigantic pointed cow-catcher. He says it can "crush trees and brush – anything." But reporting smokes by climbing fire towers is no one's idea of an early-warning system, and the lone helicopter occasionally available lacks even a bucket for dropping water on a fire.
'They're obviously not prepared'
The firefighters themselves are dedicated and hard working, Zibtsev added, but they don't have much professional training, protective suits or breathing apparatuses – standard equipment for American firefighters dealing with hazardous materials. "They're obviously not prepared for a major wildfire situation," he said.
The United Nations recently acknowledged the potential for another Chernobyl disaster and has mounted a $20 million sustainable development project designed to address wildfire and other environmental issues.
The UN project recognizes – "finally!" said Zibtsev – that well-managed forests will contribute to the decrease of fire hazards within the region. Zibtsev, who is responsible for the program’s fire management system, and Oliver envision a four-pronged approach that starts with cutting trees out of the roads so firefighters have access. Modern firefighting and fire detection equipment should dramatically improve fire response time. And then? "Start thinning!" Zibtsev said.