It began as a solemn annual pilgrimage to the poisoned ghost towns around Chernobyl. It ended in horror Tuesday as returning villagers watched raging brush fires destroy much of what remained of their communities 10 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident.
A fire that started in tall, dry grass about six miles northwest of the stricken power plant spread quickly on an unusually warm, dry April afternoon to five deserted villages before being extinguished seven hours later, firefighters said.
No injuries were reported, but officials said the wind-whipped flames sent radioactive particles high into the air, forming a radioactive cloud that is drifting toward Kiev and its 2.6 million residents.
Monitors flown in helicopters over the fire recorded only a slight radiation increase, said Nikolai Komshensky, a spokesman for Ukraine’s nuclear regulatory agency. “We see no reason to be concerned now.”
But Volodymyr Martiniuk, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Environment, said “radiation in the zone is very patchy” and the levels of danger from cesium, strontium and plutonium particles in the air still were being measured.
Firefighters said the blaze apparently had been started by a cigarette dropped by a family member visiting graves near the village of Tovsty Lis.
The fire spread quickly through four other villages in the 18-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl plant, where a reactor fire 10 years ago Friday killed 30 people outright and exposed another 5 million people to radioactive fallout, mostly in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Small forest fires are not unusual in the exclusion zone around the plant. But Vasily Melnik, Kiev fire service chief, called Tuesday’s blaze the worst since the 1986 accident.
Officials say 95 percent of the radioactive molecules in the exclusion zone have sunk into the soil. But some have been taken up by plants and trees and, despite decontamination efforts, still remain on the vacant cottages and other buildings abandoned by the thousands of people evacuated from the zone.
As a result, fires in the region pose one of the greatest environmental dangers 10 years after the disaster.
“This is clearly a danger to the health of people - and not only in Ukraine,” said Antony Frogatt, a spokesman in Kiev for the Greenpeace environmental group.
Officials at Chernobyl said the fire posed no peril to the plant itself.
Leaders of Russia and the Group of 7 industrial democracies, meeting in Moscow last weekend as the Chernobyl anniversary approached, confirmed their commitment to foot the $3 billion bill to help Ukraine close the Soviet-designed plant by the year 2000.
Ukraine spends 12 percent of its annual budget on Chernobyl-related cleanup and compensation for its victims, who include people suffering from thyroid cancer and leukemia.