Guides who offer tours of Chernobyl have warned that wildfires close to the former nuclear power station are out of control and have accused Ukrainian authorities of concealing the scale of the problem, which they said now threatens to destroy many of the sites in the area.
Firefighters have been struggling for 10 days to extinguish several fires burning inside the 18-mile "Exclusion Zone" that surrounds the station, which was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
The fires are the largest ever to hit the area according to locals, and despite the deployment of hundreds more firefighters this week they have continued to grow.
On Monday, Yaroslav Yemelianenko, the head of the Association of Chernobyl Tour Operators, said the fires were now only a kilometer from the station itself and around 2 kilometers from a site containing radioactive waste.
He said the fires had also approached Pripyat, the famous ghost city built for the power station, abandoned since its entire population was evacuated following the accident.
Yemelianenko, who also works with the state agency that manages the Exclusion Zone, on Monday published a post in which he described the situation as “critical” and accused the authorities of pretending it was under control.
"The situation is critical. The zone is ablaze,” Yemelianenko wrote on Facebook. "The local authorities report that everything is under control, but in fact the fire is rapidly spreading across new areas."
In the post he appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other senior officials in his administration to intervene, comparing the situation to the response in 1986 by Soviet authorities who initially sought to conceal the severity of the accident at the Chernobyl station.
"I have two possibilities for what’s going on: either the Cabinet is not being told the real situation or they’ve chosen the Soviet policy of hushing it up, as they did in ’86,” Yemelianenko wrote.
Authorities have insisted the situation is under control and that the fires currently do not pose a radiation threat.
Ukraine’s state emergency service said last week that a slight rise in radiation levels had been detected at the heart of the fires, but that levels remained normal further away from them and that background radiation has not risen in Ukraine's capital, about 60 miles to the south of Chernobyl.
The state emergency service on Monday night denied there was any threat to the power station or other key facilities inside the Exclusion Zone, and suggested that such claims were “fakes.”
“We can say the main thing: there is no threat to the atomic power station, the spent fuel storage or other critical installations in the Exclusion Zone,” Volodymyr Demchuk, a senior official from the emergency service said in a video address.
“Yes, the fire is difficult. But 130 of our rescue workers are working on extinguishing it, around 60 vehicles, including three planes and three helicopters," he said. “The background radiation in the capital and in the region are also within the bounds of the norm.”
Demchuk urged people to treat information about the fires skeptically and accused people of spreading false information to “sow confusion” and “hype.”
Wildfires close to Chernobyl are not uncommon, happening during most years of the past decade. But Yemelianenko and other local experts have said this year's are the worst they have ever seen, the product of an exceptionally warm winter that saw virtually no snowfall.
“This is the biggest fire in the history of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” Yemelianenko told ABC News by phone. He estimated the fire was now about 11 miles wide and said it was burning right up to the area where the power station was located. A video provided by Yemelianenko showed thick smoke billowing from the fires around the buildings in the approaches to the station.
The Chernobyl station's destroyed fourth reactor is now sealed under a metal and concrete shell, known as the "New Safe Confinement," that was completed in 2016 and cost 1.5 billion euros. The station's three other reactors continued to provide electricity until 2000, but have since been shut down. An international project has constructed a massive waste storage facility nearby.
Anton Gerashchenko, Ukraine's deputy interior minister, wrote on Facebook that trees had been cut down around the waste storage site when it was constructed in order to protect it from wildfires and that the station was under no threat.
Background radiation levels in the Exclusion Zone are usually rarely above normal. Much of the radioactive material released by the accident has been absorbed by plants and trees or absorbed into the area’s water cycle. But there are concerns that radioactive particles released by burning soil and vegetation could be carried by smoke and then inhaled by people.
In recent years, Chernobyl has become a magnet for tourists eager to explore the Soviet ruins, and tours have boomed in particular since the popular HBO series about the disaster aired last year. Despite the radiation, the Exclusion Zone has also in effect become a nature reserve, as plants and animals have flourished in the absence of people. Rare animals that have largely vanished in other parts of Europe have begun reappearing in the Zone.
Olena Gnes, a guide who works at Yemelianenko's company, Chernobyl Tour, said that although the release of radioactive particles is a worry, the main concern is the destruction the fires are wreaking on the Zone's environment and the abandoned facilities there.
"The amount of radiation, it's not really kind of critical, it will not be a second Chernobyl," she said by phone, saying she was still allowing her two children to play outside in Kyiv. “But still some amount of caesium will be released into the air, it will be higher than usually."
“The biggest concern is that we are losing our heritage,” she said. “For us the Exclusion Zone is an open-air museum. It’s one of the biggest natural reserves in the whole Europe. So it’s a big tragedy that this nature is now being so damaged.”
Gnes said that local contacts had told her the fires were now burning in parts of the "Red Forest" area of woodland that died rapidly when the fallout from the 1986 explosion turned the pines red. Although the trees have since grown back, the soil there remains contaminated. She said there had also been a serious threat that Pripyat could have caught fire, but that firefighters on Sunday had for now managed to turn the blaze back.
Authorities need to send more vehicles and firefighters, she said, to get the fire under control. Her company has been helping deliver donated supplies, including masks, drinking water and food for the firefighters, who she said sometimes lacked even sufficient maps of the Exclusion Zone.
Police have said the fires were caused by people burning grass and have arrested a 27-year-old local man, who they said told them had lit some long grass and garbage "for fun."
Gnes said the fires were frequently caused by so-called "stalkers," people sneaking into the Exclusion Zone without official tours. She said that with Ukraine on lockdown over the coronavirus, the Zone had seen a surge of stalkers after it was closed to visitors on March 18.