The Wildfire Problem in Areas Contaminated by the Chernobyl Disaster

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Science of The Total Environment

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This paper examines the issue of radionuclide resuspension from wildland fires in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in 1986. This work originated from a scientific exchange among scientists from the USDA Forest Service, Ukraine and Belarus that was organized to assess science and technology gaps related to wildfire risk management. A wildfire risk modeling system was developed to predict likely hotspots for large fires and where wildfire ignitions will most likely result in significant radionuclide (Cesium, 137Cs) resuspension. The system was also designed to examine the effect of fuel breaks in terms of reducing both burn probability and resuspension. Results showed substantial spatial variation in fire likelihood, size, intensity, and potential resuspension within the contaminated areas. The potential for a large wildfire and resuspension was highest in the Belorussian Polesie Reserve, but the likelihood of such an event was higher in the Ukrainian Chernobyl Exclusion Zone due to a higher predicted probability of ignition. Fuel breaks were most effective in terms of reducing potential resuspension when located near areas that had both high ignition probability and high levels of 137Cs contamination. Simulation outputs highlighted how human activities shape the fire regime and likelihood of a large fire in the contaminated areas. We discuss how the results can be used to develop a fire management strategy that integrates ignition prevention, detection, effective suppression response, and fuel breaks. Specifically, the modeling system can now be used to explore a wide range of fire management scenarios for the contaminated areas and contribute to a comprehensive fire management strategy that targets specific drivers of fire by leveraging multiple tools including fire prevention and long-term fuel management. Wildfire-caused emissions of radionuclides in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia are a socio-ecological problem that will require defragmenting existing risk management systems and leveraging multiple short- and long-term mitigation measures.


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