KYIV – Ukrainian emergency officials said Tuesday they have extinguished forest fires in the radiation-contaminated area near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but acknowledged that grass was still smoldering in some areas.
Hundreds of firefighters backed by aircraft have been battling several forest fires around Chernobyl for the past 10 days. They contained the initial blazes, but new fires raged closer to the decommissioned plant.
Emergencies Service chief Mykola Chechetkin reported to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that rains helped firefighters put out the flames, but acknowledged that it would take a few more days to extinguish smoldering grass.
Chechetkin said emergency workers have prevented the fire from engulfing radioactive waste depots and other facilities in Chernobyl.
The 2,600-square-kilometer (1,000-square-mile) Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was established after the 1986 disaster at the plant that sent a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe. The zone is largely unpopulated, although about 200 people have remained despite orders to leave.
Ukraine's emergencies service said radiation levels in the capital, Kyiv, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the plant, were within norms after the forest fires.
President Zelenskiy urged Ukrainians not to panic.
“We all remember the lessons of April 26, 1986," he said in an online statement Tuesday. "No one is hiding the truth from you. Right now the truth is that the situation there is under control.”
On Monday, activists warned that the blazes were getting dangerously close to waste storage facilities.
Yaroslav Yemelyanenko, a member of the public council under the state agency in charge of the closed zone around the plant, said one fire was raging within 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) from one of the radioactive waste depots.
Last week, officials said they tracked down a person suspected of triggering the blaze by setting dry grass on fire in the area. The 27-year-old man said he burned grass “for fun” and then failed to extinguish the fire when the wind caused it to spread quickly.
On Monday, police said that another local resident burned waste and accidentally set dry grass ablaze, triggering another devastating forest fire. They said he failed to report the fire to the authorities.
Blazes in the area have been a regular occurrence. They often start when residents set dry grass on fire in the early spring — a widespread practice in Ukraine, Russia and some other ex-Soviet nations that often leads to devastating forest fires.