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Belarus: Health Risks Uncertain As Wildfires Burn In Chornobyl Zones

Dry weather and human carelessness have resulted in dozens of wildfires in the region of Belarus most affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. The Belarusian Emergency Situations Ministry admitted the fires have elevated radiation levels in the area, but have not said what threat, if any, the rise poses to residents in the region.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of hectares of forestland and peat bogs are burning in the Belarusian regions of Homel, Brest, and Mahileu. In 1986, all three of these regions absorbed much of the radioactive fallout of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. A 1,700-square-kilometer plot of land in Homel remains fenced off to this day, and a number of villages in Brest and Mahileu have been permanently evacuated.

Scientists in Belarus say the country received 70 percent of the nuclear fallout from the accident. Much of the radiation accumulated in Belarusian forestland, and ecologists warn that wildfires can raise the radiation levels. State authorities, however, say the region has experienced far worse fires in recent years, and that the current wildfires pose no serious risk.

Anatol Hatoushys is a local free-lance journalist based in Homel. He said there are severe wildfires burning in the Yelchinskii and Stolinskii raions located between the Homel and Brest regions. He said that more than 1,000 hectares of forestland and peat bogs were burning this week. Some 4,000 people are working to try to put out the fires. "Half of Yelchinskii Raion is covered with smoke and it is bad for people. The people are very afraid," Hatoushys said.

A monthlong drought and high temperatures have created the possibility for even more fires to break out in coming days. Hatoushys said people fear radiation levels are rising but that there is no credible information coming from the state on the affect of the fires on the radiation zones. In some areas, uncertainty is so great that many people have opted to stay indoors as much as possible, their windows tightly sealed against the smoke.

Hatoushys said there have been fires in Homel's evacuated safety zone. "There were fires in the zone. In the beginning of the summer there was a fire in a part of the zone near Choiniki, when the village of Kazuchki burned down," Hatoushys said.

Ilona Ivanova is a free-lance journalist based in Mahileu, another region affected by the fires. Ivanova said there are many areas in Mahileu that were evacuated in 1986 because of high radiation. In Karsnopolskii, the most contaminated of Mahileu's districts, dozens of hectares of grassland and forests have already been devastated by the wildfires.

Ivanova said local authorities say firefighters in the region have already extinguished more than 500 fires. Despite warnings from officials to avoid high-radiation forests hit by this summer's fires, many Mahileu residents continue to go to the forests to pick berries and mushrooms. She said people living in the Mahileu region understand the dangers of radioactivity but are tired of being afraid. "You see, during those years after the Chornobyl disaster, people living in the contaminated regions got used to it and now they don't pay any attention to it," Ivanova said.

State authorities say everything is being done to stop the spread of the fires. Kiril Danilov is a senior inspector in the department of propaganda and training in the Emergency Situations Ministry. He told RFE/RL there has been no increase in radiation levels in the towns near the wildfires, and that a number of the larger fires in the Homel region have been put out in the past several days. He added that this year's fires are not as serious as a series of wildfires that broke out in the region two years ago, when the smell of smoke reached as far away as the capital Minsk, some 400 kilometers from Homel.

Ecologists admit the fires are not as severe as those two years ago but say they are dangerous nonetheless. Vladimir Chuprov of the Russian branch of the Greenpeace environmental group told RFE/RL that every wildfire in the contaminated areas poses a threat. "It is dangerous. The forests absorbed the radioactive elements released during the Chornobyl accident. These include the most dangerous ones: cesium and strontium. [The trees] absorb radioactive elements, and any wildfire will release these radioactive elements," Chuprov said.

Chuprov said the firefighters face the biggest danger because strontium and cesium are both easily inhaled. He said the wind can carry radioactive elements distances of 40 or 50 kilometers and put even people living far from the fires at risk.