For the past several days, forest fires have been burning in the woods in northern Ukraine, as firefighters have tried to get the upper hand on the blaze. Now, the fires are reported to be just over a mile from the abandoned power plant. One fire had already reached the outskirts of Pripyat, the abandoned town that once housed 50,000 residents, affecting workers and their families.
The town and the area around the plant, and of course the plant itself, are all still highly radioactive.
As recently as April 5, Yegor Firsov, acting head of Ukraine's state ecological inspection service, had said that radiation levels in the area had risen substantially. However, government officials later said that radiation levels in the area were within normal limits, and Firsov withdrew his statement.
Meanwhile, the winds have shifted, according to Eco Watch, and are blowing smoke from the fires towards Kyiv, Ukraine's most populous city, home to about 3 million people. Smoke, potentially contaminated with radioactive particles, could reach the city by the weekend.
"Wind can raise hot particles in the air together with the ash and blow it toward populated areas," said air pollution expert Olena Miskun.
As it turns out, the coronavirus pandemic may yet limit the amount of damage the potentially-radioactive smoke-filled winds do once they reach Kyiv. That's because people in the city are largely staying inside to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and when they do go outside, they wear masks.
"We are lucky to have quarantine measures in place now. People stay at home, walk less and wear masks," Miskun said.
While the potential human cost of what could happen should the fires reach Pripyat or the abandoned power plant is still being calculated, the economic cost could be devastating. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the site each year, and much of the local economy derives from that revenue, said tour operator Yaroslav Emelianenko.
Meanwhile, firefighters are doing what they can to contain the blaze and, in particular, keep it from the contaminated site.
"We have been working all night, digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire," said Kateryna Pavlova, acting head of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management.