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CMES Researchers Warn of Increased Fire Risk in War-Torn Ukraine

Satellite image showing fires in an agricultural area in the southwestern part of Chernobyl.
Satellite image showing fires in an agricultural area in the southwestern part of Chernobyl. Satellite image by Lina Eklund.

In the wake of climate change and an increasingly warmer and drier climate, wildfires are becoming more common. In Ukraine, the war further increases the risk. Already in March this year, fires broke out around Chernobyl. CMES researcher Lina Eklund fears that a dry summer could lead to further fires with catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences.

Physical geographer Lina Eklund, who studies the connection between war and fires in nature, has followed developments in Ukraine with great concern. Her research shows that when the intensity of conflict increases and more people die, the number of fires increases - which can be clearly seen in the satellite images Lina Eklund uses in her research. 

She is particularly concerned about the fires around Chernobyl where there is a risk of increased radiation and emissions of radioactive particles.

How are wars and fires connected?

– There is limited research in the field, but when my colleague Pinar Dinc and I, did studies in the Kurdish parts of Turkey and Iraq, we have seen a clear connection between war and fires. This is because wildfires often occur due to human activities. It can be cigarette butts or machines that cause sparks that cause fires, but they can also be caused by bombings and shellings. 

– In the case of war, or armed conflict, fires can also be used as a weapon to burn forests, agricultural land and settlements, and thus negatively impact important functions and resources, as has previously been seen in conflicts in the Middle East, among others.

What is the fire situation in Ukraine now?

– With the help of satellite images from the European satellite Sentinel, we have been able to see fires in the area around Chernobyl since mid-March. According to Ukrainian authorities, more than 10,000 hectares have been burned, and it is suspected that the fires were started by Russian shelling. Most of the fires in the Chernobyl area now appear to have been extinguished.

Satellite images show fires in an agricultural area in the southwestern part of Chernobyl during the months of March and April.
Satellite images show fires in an agricultural area in the southwestern part of Chernobyl during the months of March and April. The images show fire-damaged land and burning land on different dates. Image by Lina Eklund.

What can be the consequences of the increased fires? 

– Most fires that I can see via satellite images take place within the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where soil and vegetation contain elevated amounts of the radioactive substance cesium-137. Due to the fires, these dangerous substances can end up in the atmosphere. When forest fires ravaged the area in 2020, there was a huge increase in air pollution, but according to the UN Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), radiation levels remained below harmful levels and the fires therefore did not lead to any negative health impact. How it will be now is difficult to say. 

– Another fear is that the fires could affect the global food supply. Not least poor countries in the Middle East are particularly at risk as they depend on grain imports from Ukraine. 

As it stands now, we do not see an immediate end to the war in Ukraine, how do you view that development in relation to the risk of fire?

- The closer we get to summer, the greater the risk of fires, because that is when you usually see most wildfires in Europe. One problem is that the ability to fight the fires during an armed conflict is much lower, especially in the areas controlled by Russian troops. Smaller fires can spread widely because there are not enough resources to fight them. 

- Even in Russia, there is a great risk that forest fires, due to rising temperatures and a drier climate, cannot be fought or controlled because the Russian forces, which usually help to fight the fires, are now in Ukraine. If we see similar fires in Siberia as in previous years, the situation risks becoming very serious, and the environmental and climate consequences are enormous. There is therefore every reason to worry about the development right now, also from a wildfire risk perspective.

Lina Eklund is a researcher at the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science and the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University. She is currently leading an Advanced Study Group (ASG) at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies - Wildfires in the Anthropocene - which studies various aspects of fires, such as fire safety, climate change, biodiversity, public health, conflict and environmental safety. More information can also be found on Pufendorf's website.